On WI-87 south into St. Croix Falls, this sign urges the public to report any information they have regarding area methamphetamine activity. 

How has it evolved?


The Wisconsin State Crime Laboratory (WSCL) drug cases dashboard provides county-by-county statistics on the number of cases in which a sample of a particular drug was sent to the forensic lab for analysis. 

The most recent set of complete data on the dashboard pertains to 2018. When it comes to methamphetamine, that year saw 69 Polk County cases and corresponding reports through the WSCL, one more case than Milwaukee County, the most populous county in the state. 

Neighboring Barron County had the highest number of meth cases, 155, sent to the WSCL in 2018.

It should be noted that these statistics do not necessarily imply what the rates of methamphetamine usage or addiction are across Wisconsin.

“The rates (of samples) going to the crime lab have gone down,” Polk County Criminal Justice Coordinator Kristin Boland said. In fact, the number of Polk County cases sent to the WSCL was more than halved from 2017 to 2018. “That would lead a person to believe that maybe meth use in Polk County has gone down. That’s not necessarily true. There was a period of time in Polk County when every case that involved any amount of drugs was sent to the crime lab.”

Indeed, meth is still quite prevalent across the county and northwestern Wisconsin. Polk County offers a number of programs designed to divert people from drug use, including Treatment Court, the First Time Offender Program and the Treatment Diversion Alternative (TAD) Program. All of these options, Boland said, were full as of the beginning of January. 

“I don’t think we’ve completely taken care of the meth issue,” she relayed. “Meth is the primary drug of choice in our county.”

There are a number of contributing factors to this, and Polk County’s close proximity to the Twin Cities is one. Most of the meth in the county is brought in through Minneapolis and St. Paul, and originates from cartels in Mexico. Counties closer to the Chicago metropolitan area tend to have higher rates of opioid cases, which are less common in the northwestern part of the state. 

While the nature of Polk County’s meth dilemma has changed, the problem itself dates back decades. Twenty years ago, homemade meth labs were prominent in this neck of the woods. 

“We had some of the largest labs in this county,” Sheriff Brent Waak said. “It was just amazing, the amount of product and glassware and detail put into some of these labs… at times in lake homes, at times in businesses.”

Prior to mid-2000s federal restrictions placed on the sale of cold medicines containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, it wasn’t uncommon for would-be Walter Whites to buy out a store’s entire stock of Sudafed for meth manufacturing.

“We’re very fortunate, from an environmental protection standpoint, that we don’t have these labs going [anymore], because they were a chemical disaster [and a fire hazard],” Waak said. 

Now, he states, meth in Polk County is just one more facet of the ongoing border security debate.

“If you want to talk big picture, it does affect us all the way up here, the fact that there are super-labs of methamphetamine down in Mexico,” he said. “But there’s obviously a demand here, so you have to look at both sides of that problem.”

That demand is spurred chiefly by trauma, a major contributing factor in propensity for addiction.

“We know there’s a couple of things that really fuel addiction. Trauma, and loneliness or lack of community. One, we have to constantly work as providers, community, whatever... to make sure that people are not being traumatized,” Boland said. “That comes with reducing crime… The second is community connection. When people feel like they’re cared about, and they belong, they make better choices across the board.”

It is the local sense of invested community support, Boland believes, that contributes to the Polk County Treatment Court’s 86% success rate, a sharp contrast from the national average of 40-60% for similar programs. The road proves rough, however, when it comes to turning around the cycle of substance abuse.

“They can’t live in subsidized housing. They can’t get student aid to go to college. They can’t get some jobs because they’re felons,” Boland says of many people convicted on drug-related charges. “You take this group of people who already, we know, have significantly more adverse childhood experiences than the average population. And by the time they come into our system, they don’t have a lot of resources.”

Nonprofits like Moms and Dads Against Meth of St. Croix Falls, which runs the women’s sober living facility Butterfly House, have played a role in educating the community about the dangers of methamphetamine use. The Criminal Justice Collaborating Council (CJCC) has run anti-drug PSAs during previews at the movie theater. Parents, though, are the most important figures in stopping meth’s prevalence among the youngest generation, the CJCC says.

“If you have that conversation [about meth’s dangers], there’s a high chance that your kids will not abuse substances,” Waak said.

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