Heroin may be in the spotlight but there’s another menace plaguing urban and rural settings.

Methamphetamine was barely a blip on the local radar 10 years ago, if at all, said Det. Scott Steinhorst of the Sauk County Sheriff’s Office.

“We didn’t have meth. We didn’t have the problem,” he said. “We got hit really hard with heroin. Heroin, heroin, heroin. Then we got hit with meth 2 years ago.

“Lately it’s been quite a bit, at least once a week, sometimes more.”

In Lake Delton, the Police Department has seen an uptick in tips and complaints about meth, said Sgt. Steven Smith. At the Mauston Police Department, Clerk Amanda Hardy had no records of meth from 2007. She now has so many it’s tough to find an exact number.

Their experiences mirror those found throughout Juneau, Sauk and Columbia counties. Meth concerns law enforcement and counselors due to its dangerous ingredients and difficulty to treat.

Crossing the border

Ease and demand may fuel the meth dilemma. Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel said meth isn’t new; records show it’s been around for almost 30 years. It has since become more potent and easy to produce.

Ten years ago, labs were an issue but now most meth comes from Mexico and Central America, he said. Of all the meth busted in Wisconsin, 5 percent was made here, he added.

Meth has shown up in metropolitan areas like the Twin Cities, Chicago and Madison, and it’s now flowing to outlying areas, most likely to boost profits for producers, Schimel said.

Labs haven’t completely dried up; officers busted 37 one-pot outfits between 2012 and 2015, Schimel said.

Producers have also found ways to make meth in sports-drink bottles, said Reedsburg Police Chief Tim Becker. He said it doesn’t work with water bottles because the substances eat through the thinner plastic.

Becker said he can’t fathom why anyone would want to put such a drug in their body.

Not ‘safer’

In some cases, heroin users have switched to meth either for fear of overdosing or easier accessibility.

Laws have cracked down on opioids, and doctors are limiting how much they prescribe. Prescription painkillers tend to be costly, prompting addicts to find a new fix, said Chuck Lipford, drug and alcohol counselor for the Juneau County Department of Human Services.

“My gut instinct is, as opiates become more expensive and more difficult to obtain, more people are turning to meth,” he said.

Headlines about heroin overdoses may entice users to switch to meth, which usually doesn’t lead to a quick death. It’s anything but a solution to heroin, said Christopher Polzer, manager of Sauk County’s Criminal Justice Programs, including the adult drug court. It’s not only illegal but damaging to the mind and body.

“It’s clearly not a safer alternative or a better drug to use,” he said.

Slow dance to death

In the last two years, it’s become more common for users to mix heroin, a downer, with meth, an upper, to try and counter heroin’s risks of overdosing, said Detective Andy Stelter of the Reedsburg Police Department.

“Obviously they are not doctors so that’s probably not a good idea,” he said.

Stelter said he’s been with the department for 17 years and has noticed an increase in meth-related offenses, including theft and assault. Most are repeat offenders.

Users can suffer weight loss or severe tooth decay or tooth loss, otherwise known as “meth mouth,” according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Skin sores are also common since meth can cause hallucinations of insects crawling under the skin.

“It’s destroying their bodies but they like it and you can’t tell them otherwise,” Stelter said. “Their addiction is overpowering their common sense.”

As a counselor, Lipford tries to drive home the other terrible prices of addiction.

“Death, prison, divorce, lack of jobs, lack of housing, you name it,” he said.

Schimel said meth carries a high risk of permanent brain damage.

“It’s an extraordinarily toxic drug,” he said. “It physically ages you.

“It’s not just bad for you. It is making you less than what you were.”

Difficult to treat

Medications exist to help opiate and heroin abusers, but no such balm exists for the sting of meth use. For this reason, treatment is a challenge.

Lipford said meth has a powerful effect on the brain. It may leave the body quicker than most other drugs but the craving lingers.

Meth doesn’t follow the same neurological route as other drugs, added Dr. Thomas Hayes, who works mostly out of Columbia County with the Pauquette Center. It follows a direct path to provide the reward, or high, with little or no filters to catch or slow it down. Substances moving with such ease tend to be more addictive and cause intense cravings upon withdrawal.

“Once someone gets caught in that web of meth, they stay caught,” he said. “It’s rather frustrating.”

Hayes said he first noticed minimal meth cases 8 years ago around Wisconsin Dells and Baraboo. He has gone from seeing one or two patients per month to one or two a day across 5 counties. Pauquette Center has locations in Baraboo, Columbus, Portage, Prairie du Sac, Reedsburg and Richland Center.

Schimel said there’s a frightening mantra associated with meth use.

“Use me once and I might let you go,” he said. “Use me twice and I’ll own your soul.”

No simple solutions

Inpatient programs could help address meth addiction, but there’s a problem. Medical care is expensive, Hayes said, and most health insurance only covers a portion of treatment. At a public level, taxpayers may not want to foot the bill. Ninety days in a facility could make a difference, but it the suggestion won’t work without a funding plan.

“It’s kind of hard to drive the car if you’re only allowed to have the tires,” he said.

Incarceration, or keeping users away from meth, is an alternative but it’s not a long-term solution, again due to costs, he added. In the long run, jail and prison could cost more than medical care, he said.

Steinhorst echoed Hayes’s approach.

“It’s a problem I don’t think we can arrest our way out of,” he said. “It will probably require treatment as well.”

He added residents can help by reporting suspicious activity or suspected meth to authorities.

“We have to rely on the community to be our eyes because we can’t be everywhere,” he said.

Communities need to have a dialogue about meth, Polzer said. The drug can affect anyone, including the user, a user’s children, family, neighbors or victims of crime.

“I don’t think we can have enough education about this,” he said. “I don’t think anyone is immune to it.”

For Schimel, improved border security combined with teaching could reduce meth use. He said borders are a controversial topic but clamping down on suspicious traffic could cut off meth flowing into the U.S.

Intervention may or may not work. During his 12 years on the job, Lipford said he’s received many calls from desperate relatives and friends of addicts. It’s up to the user, however, to desire change.

“You can have all the people you know and that person will go to treatment,” he said. “In another household you can have all the family together and the person will walk out.”

A new program, Meth Aware, started this year to help pharmacies and hardware store spot red flags for meth production, Becker said. Certain medicines and substances can be used for meth, so it may help for store personnel to notice when certain combinations are frequently purchased together.

Stelter said he hopes scientists someday discover a medicine to treat meth addiction, although he wonders if it would truly be a blessing.

“I’m worried they’ll just switch to a different drug, like a never-ending chain,” he said.

Follow Heather Stanek on Twitter @HStanek1 or reach her at 608-697-6353.

I am the reporter and photographer for the Reedsburg Times-Press. I also shoot, edit and post videos for stories.