By Ryan Urban

A pandemic has done Barron County no favors in fighting methamphetamine use, but officials hope that a number of new initiatives will make a difference.

Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald and Department of Health and Human Services director Stacey Frolik and other officials addressed the impact of meth in the area and answered questions in a meth town hall event at Barron Area Community Center on Thursday, Sept. 9.

Sen. Ron Johnson attended and spoke for just a couple minutes at the end of the townhall.

Johnson indicated that he didn’t think additional federal legislation or funding would solve the problem, but that effort must happen at a local level.

“The federal government can print money to try and solve this problem. But it has to start here,” said Johnson. “It‘s about renewed faith, stronger families and supportive communities.”

Fitzgerald and Frolik touched on several initiatives to help curb meth use in northwest Wisconsin, which stands out for prevalent meth use, which takes a back seat to opioids in most parts of the country. Among people referred to alcohol and drug abuse programs, 53 percent of the time it’s for meth.

Fitzgerald said prevention is key to the fight against meth and other substance abuse. He said underage drinking increased in 2020 because compliance checks were shelved out of precaution against the spread of COVID-19. He said meth use also increased in part for the same reason—a disruption of prevention efforts.

The sheriff also said the fact that people had more money as a result of COVID-19 stimulus payments, may also have contributed to more meth use.

“When people have money, they’re going to spend it on things they like, and some people like meth,” said Fitzgerald.

The fact that the County kept fewer people in jail may also have contributed to some re-offending.

“There’s a lot more people in jail now that our probation office is fully operating,” said Fitzgerald.

When asked by an audience member why conviction penalties weren’t harsher, Barron County District Attorney Brian Wright replied, “We’re not going to incarcerate our way out of the meth problem.”

He said that judges will avoid putting harsh sentences on offenders who are genuine in their efforts to get sober.

Wright described the meth problem as a three-legged stool—it’s easy to acquire, it’s affordable because the supply is high and it’s highly addictive.

Fitzgerald said one of the biggest predictors of who is likely to reoffend is who they hang out with.

Rep. Dave Armstrong, who described himself as a former addict now 34 years sober, agreed.

“There’s always money for treatment, but we have to think of the after-care needs as well,” he said. “Get them out of treatment into a transitional home where they can build their sobriety.”

Why do people use meth in the first place?

To some it’s a means to get more done.

Fitzgerald said someone on meth might be up for a week, then crash and sleep for 2-3 days. He said to watch for weird sleeping habits if someone is suspected of using meth.

More often the path to meth is through friends or family.

Among some quotes shared in the townhall presentation was this one: “When I was 13 years old, my Dad asked me to smoke Meth with him. When I said no, he beat the S@#! out of me. My choice was to smoke meth or get beat up. So the next time he asked, I said yes.”

And this one: “Growing up I didn’t understand that most people didn’t do drugs. My parents, grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins all did it. I thought that’s just what people did. I didn’t know I had a choice.”

Frolik said, “We didn’t search the world for these quotes. These are things happening right in our own community.”

Anyone from teenagers to the elderly may be using meth.

“It really doesn’t discriminate,” said Frolik.

Of course, many of those affected most by the drug are children of addicted parents.

In 2020 parental rights of eight people in Barron County were terminated and 72 children were placed in other homes due to meth. Most of these children are infants or toddlers.

“We’re talking about little kiddos who can’t provide for their own safety,” said Frolik.

But separating children from parents is a sort of last resort.

“Being in that family, if you’re in that dynamic, being removed from that environment is in some cases definitely good,” said Frolik. “But in some cases it causes trauma that then perpetuates that cycle of addiction.”

There’s a high human cost and financial cost. Each out of home placement that lasts a full year costs county taxpayers $100,000 to boot.

What is being done to help?

In 2019, Barron County was awarded a grant to implement a Family Drug Treatment Court. The court works with parents who have a substance use disorder and are involved with the child welfare system. The program aims to reunify parents with their children and improve the safety, well-being and stability of children in Barron County.

Another new program is Court Appointed Special Advocates. CASA is a program that enlists citizen volunteers to champion the needs of abused and neglected children who are unsafe at home and must live temporarily under the jurisdiction of the courts and the supervision of the county child welfare system.

Fitzgerald said there are 40 volunteer-run programs in the jail that lend support to inmates.

Frolik said it can be difficult for DHHS to determine whether a person has an addiction issue or a mental health issue, or perhaps a combination of the two. She said it is a challenge the department is working on.

“People are self-medicating with drugs,” she said.

Fitzgerald hinted at more collaboration between police and social workers to provide more comprehensive community services.

“We’re not putting guns on social workers,” he said. “But we’re working more closely with social workers.”

Fitzgerald mentioned that his department arrested three people and confiscated $7,800 worth of meth recently.

But that will barely dent the supply of the drug, which comes from Mexico to the Twin Cities and into northwest Wisconsin. Local meth labs are a thing of the past.

“We haven’t had a meth lab for 10 years,” said Fitzgerald.

But the drug is more dangerous than ever.

Frolik said it can be laced with fentanyl, a potent and dangerous opioid. And she said more people are injecting meth, which is more dangerous than inhaling through a pipe or snorting it.

Fitzgerald said there is a life after treatment of substance abuse.

“Just because someone has a conviction doesn’t mean they’re a bad person or a bad employee or a bad renter,” he said.

Johnson had the last word at the event, mentioning he has a nephew in treatment for substance abuse.