VIROQUA, Wis. (WXOW) – In a nationwide survey of county law enforcement officials in 2006, nearly half said they considered methamphetamine to be their primary drug problem more so than cocaine, marijuana and heroin combined.
The $181 billion in social costs attributed to drug abuse cost the American family an average of $2,446 dollars.
Law enforcement from the La Crosse area say the biggest misconception is that meth is only a big city problem.
When people think of a meth user, they often imagine a the drug meth conjures up an image of certain type of user. The face of meth addiction stretches far and wide from young teens to working professionals. But they’re not the only ones affected.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy reports that out of nearly 6,000 meth labs reported in the U.S. homes, at least 1600 children were removed from those locations.
While the number of big scale meth labs have been declining, pop up labs are becoming the norm. For each pound of methamphetamine produced, five to six pounds of hazardous waste is generated only to be picked up by unsuspecting citizens.
Tom Johnson and Lt. Scott Bjerkos are on the front lines of a drug war, a meth epidemic plaguing rural communities.
Johnson came out of retirement to head the West Central Metropolitan Enforcement Group unit.
“I think it’s a huge misconception to a lot of people. There’s many times people say they’re really happy that we’re keeping the drug problem in the big cities and that’s just not true,” said Johnson.
Johnson coordinates drug cases for 17 law enforcement agencies in La Crosse, Monroe, Trempealeau, Jackson and Vernon County where a typically serene cornfield can be a landmine of dumped drugs.
Lt. Scott Bjerkos sees this all the time. He works with the CLEAR Team which stands for Clandestine Laboratory Enforcement & Response Team.
“They’re not going to take it to the hazardous material dump site so you have them abandoning their cook sites being in parks, woods, hotel rooms. They simply throw their waste out in a ditch. Now we have the Cub Scout, Girl Scout troops picking up for the Adopt a Highway Program. Now they’re at risk,” said Bjerkos.
Originally, meth labs were elaborate operations. Johnson says Wisconsin seemed to be a prime place for them. People could go undetected cooking meth.
“There was a meth lab, north of Westby in Vernon County in 1991 that was one of the largest meth labs in the history of the state at that time. That was the old P2P method…where all the chemicals are made.
There was enough precursor chemicals on site at that laboratory to produce 50 kilos more of methamphetamine.” said Johnson.
That bust changed the industry. It forced meth cookers to get creative. Instead of cooking in a house, they cook in their car. Since meth is a synthetic drug enhanced with ammonia, pesticides and even lithium batteries, the process contains corrosive and explosive ingredients. Clean up requires help from the CLEAR team.
A former addict says she didn’t even know what meth was before she tried it.
“We had been doing meth for a few days. I came down from meth for the first time and I wanted to go back up again and we just kept getting more and more and it turned into a two week binge and that’s what got me hooked,” said Amanda.
Bjerkos and Johnson agree that they more they work on drug investigations they see that rampant drug use doesn’t just affect the user.
Lt. Scott Bjerkos says that drugs are an issue we should all be concerned about.
“It affects everybody. It affects the entire community. There’s clean up costs to the lab, the disposal of the hazardous material. Now you have the court process, the prosecution of the individual and most about every occurrence that is back on the taxpayer’s bill,” said Bjerkos.
“The impact is enormous. These people that are buying these components are generally not working. They don’t have jobs, viable sources of income so that leads them down a path of crime. They’re burglarizing our houses, they’re robbing other drug dealers, breaking into places and stealing money,” said Johnson.
As for Amanda. She says there isn’t a single redeeming factor about meth.
“I regret 99 percent of those seven years. I missed out on things. I also ruined things,” said Amanda.
Today Amanda is drug free and using her experience to help others in the grips of addiction.
“When I think about telling people who are thinking about trying drugs for the first time I always tell them make a list of everything that you’re willing to lose. Most people wouldn’t put down their home, their car, their children, their family, their money,” said Amanda.
The outcome for meth users is usually pretty grim but Amanda’s message is one of hope.
Johnson and Bjerkos say they have a message too.
“We don’t want you around here and as far as I’m concerned you can go back and climb under whatever rock you came out from under,” said Johnson.
“If you are cooking methamphetamine in Vernon County, it’s not if, it’s when we will come. We will get you,” said Bjerkos.