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Meth problems come to light in Lake County

It's one of the most addictive drugs available and it's spreading across Lake County, but the problem is mostly unrecognized.

The drug is methamphetamine and local law enforcement officials are coming to grips with the problem and looking for ways to prevent to the flow to Lake County.

"Methamphetamine was a hot topic here four or five years ago in the drug world when it got to be the really popular drug," said Two Harbors police chief Kevin Ruberg. "We haven't heard so much in the national media in the last year or two and people might not think it was as prevalent as before, but we're always actively investigating meth cases in the community much more than people might think."

Sheriff Carey Johnson said that relative ease of manufacturing meth makes the crime easy to hide.

"You can make meth as easy as doing it in a two-liter bottle in your car," he said. "And that's an officer awareness thing for us. You used to be able to open a container and sniff to see if there's alcohol. Now you do that and you can end up dead."

Rural communities a hotspot for drugs

Dr. Bob Zotti, an emergency medicine physician at Essentia Health St. Mary's Hospital in Duluth, said meth isn't just an inner city problem anymore. In fact, a lot of patients are coming from rural areas like Two Harbors.

"They like rural counties because a lot of the time when you manufacture drugs, there's loud blasts or it gives off odors," he said. "They don't want that in a place where there are people watching, so they've moved it out to cabins and places that aren't out there in the open."

The hospital has seen an increase patients involved with meth labs in fish houses, Zotti said, because all of the evidence is washed away when the ice melts.

The rural nature of illegal drug manufacturing is consistent with what the sheriff's office has seen, Johnson said.

"We've had areas, basically outside of town, where we've suspected marijuana grows or someone is trying to manufacture drugs in a tent-like setting," he said.

Statistics on methamphetamine use and distribution have traditionally been hard to track. Most studies have focused on major metropolitan areas, rather than rural locations.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health has shown a significant decline in active meth users in the United States over the past decade. The most recent numbers show that only about 0.1 percent of population can be classified as active users.

However, officials say they have a tough time estimating statistics for Lake County. Other than a 2011 bust that resulted in the arrest of four men suspected of manufacturing meth in a Silver Creek Township trailer, discoveries of meth labs have been rare in the county.

But that doesn't mean the drug isn't finding its way there.

"I'm very confident that the meth we're seeing isn't being made in backyards," Ruberg said. "Typically it's coming from other sources. Mexico is a huge source and it funnels up through the United States. We've dealt with a couple lab situations over last few years, but not in great numbers."

The sheriff's office has a representative on the Lake Superior Drug and Gang Task Force, a coalition of local law enforcement agencies spearheaded by the Duluth Police Department. Johnson said the task force does help with drug issues in communities like Two Harbors, but most of the resources are spent in Duluth.

"Duluth is the area that tends to be more of a hub and it expands from there," he said.

Health effects severe

At St. Mary's, Zotti said he sees the effects of methamphetamine more often than many people might think. Patients suffering from the effects of meth typically come in with their hearts racing and a nervous or nauseous feeling, he said.

"These are young, healthy people," Zotti said. "Next to marijuana, I'd say methamphetamine is probably the most common drug we're seeing with patients ages 18 to 40."

Smoking and injection are the most common methods of use Zotti sees. He said users often feel euphoric and energized after using the drug, but violent personality changes, high blood pressure, kidney disease and eye problems all can result from the use of meth.

He estimated that about half of the patients he sees come in voluntarily, while the other half are brought in by police or concerned family members.

"When (the police) bring people in who are not answering questions appropriately or are being combative, most of the time they understand that either drugs or psychiatric illness are involved," Zotti said.

Methamphetamine takes about six to 24 hours to pass through the body. Once the patient is stable, doctors will refer him or her to a treatment program, typically the Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment, a Duluth detoxification center that provides treatment for much of the region.

But meth is known as a strongly addictive drug and treatment programs don't always work.

"If you go back to the same environment or scenario where you were exposed to methamphetamine the first time, it's difficult to break that chain," Zotti said. "They might go (to rehab) to appease a family member or to get away from people, but many times people have relapses and fall back."

Ruberg and Johnson agreed, saying that repeat offenders are common with many drugs.

"I can tell you that meth, from the people we've talked to, is a hard habit to break," Ruberg said. "We certainly deal with a lot of repeat offenders, but that's not to say there aren't any success stories."

The issue is even more complicated by the fact that friends and family members often don't seek help for drug users out of fear of retaliation or seeing their loved ones go to prison, Johnson said.

"There's all kinds of reasons that people don't report it - they don't want them to go to prison or face other consequences," he said. "But you're not going to help them unless you get them some help."