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Meth topic draws business crowd

About 50 people attended last Thursday morning's River Falls Chamber of Commerce business breakfast that addressed methamphetamine (meth) usage and how it affects the community.

Pierce County Investigators Mike Waltz and Bruce VonHaden spoke about meth and different ways to control the problems it causes.

River Falls' St. Croix Harley-Davidson, 883 Hwy. 65, sponsored the breakfast.

Waltz is a full-time narcotics investigator. He's seen shocking circumstances firsthand and stays busy following up on tips the community gives him.

Waltz and VonHaden have spoken about meth at schools and sheriffs' conventions, sharing what they've learned.

"Meth can have devastating effects on people," said Waltz at the chamber's business breakfast. "It's highly addictive and possible to get hooked after one time. Users often get their first dose free."

People in their early 20s are the biggest user group. Anybody can use and get hooked, though.

Waltz remembers one case where three generations of the family were using in one household - everyone from the 13-year-old grandkids to the 78-year-old grandmother.

He says statistically, 6.2% of high-school seniors have tried meth and that most users are white.

Meth dealers and manufacturers give away first and second doses knowing that those users will be back seeking to get high again.

Waltz said, "One of the big problems with meth is that - especially the first time using - it maxes out your happy factor. The drug causes your body to dump all the dopamine it has so you feel happier and more energetic than you ever have."

The brain naturally produces dopamine when something good happens and after exercise. Think of things that produce really good feelings: A hole in one, a big raise or a strong workout. Meth delivers that feeling through synthetic means.

Only that first-time feeling is exactly that. The high is never as good as the first time, so users keep increasing the dose "reasoning" that maybe a little more will do it.

It never does. By the time users realize they want to quit, it's too late.

"A single dose of meth costs $20," Waltz said. "By time a person becomes a regular user - an addict - they're probably spending an average of $400 per week."

That high price tag creates more problems since addicts can rarely hold a job and must fund their habit through burglary, robbery, identity theft and other kinds of fraud.

An addict wanting meth stops at nothing to get money for more.

Waltz told these stories:

One meth user who robbed his high school teacher's house because he knew the teacher would be at school all day.

Another returned to the house of elderly paraplegic man she had once nursed because she knew he'd be an easy mark.

Many people stole from family and friends during personal visits. Another meth user, a young burglar stopped with tire spikes after a high-speed chase, ended up confessing to 10 other crimes.

"People wanting meth will steal anything of value that they can trade or sell for drugs," Waltz said.

Business people must watch closely for counterfeit money.

Waltz says if business owners don't have a tester pen - get one. McDonald's recently even tested a $5 bill he gave them.

Protect Social Security numbers and shred credit card applications. Thieves will steal an identity, open one or several credit card accounts, then buy popular electronics and video games to sell or return for cash.

Some retail stores have adopted policies that only allow two returns per person as a way to thwart the return-stolen-stuff-for-cash scam.

Another popular con is when addicts use stolen cards or forged checks to buy cases of expensive baby formula that they can return for cash.

Waltz advises business owners to check IDs and signatures, make sure bills are real and keep an eye out for the same people returning merchandise.

Another dimension of the problem is meth labs. They're easy to operate in rural areas, and cooks can find recipes on the Internet.

Meth-making chemicals are often explosive or flammable. They can also contaminate the environment.

"If a lab gets all the ingredients in a morning, it can have a large batch ready by noon," said Waltz. "It's quick and they're gone before you know they what they were up to."

Waltz offered his list of the top five products that signal someone may be making meth.

Most are common household items that don't raise suspicion unless bought in large amounts: Decongestant products like Sudafed, matchbooks or wooden kitchen matches, lithium batteries and camping fuel. The last is muratic acid, which is only used by people who work with concrete.

One pharmacist in a nearby town called in a tip that helped convict a maker and closed a lab. Waltz agrees that everyday people can make a difference just by keeping a sharp eye out for suspicious activity and purchases. One hunter in the business-breakfast crowd had run across a lab while hunting.

Meth goes by many names - speed, crank, crystal, hillbilly crack, ice, poor man's cocaine - and usually looks like a white or brownish powder or rock-like material. People snort, inject, smoke and ingest it.

"Sometimes it looks like the salt on a pretzel but bigger," Waltz said.

The all-synthetic drug contains a mix of harmful chemicals that speed the body's metabolism.

Young women often do meth to lose weight, then end up addicted. A meth high lasts from 24-36 hours but affects a user's body for up to 90 days after usage by throwing it off balance.

Hard-core meth users often look antsy or fidgety and have unhealthy-looking low body weights due to a racing metabolism. They may scratch themselves a lot because the chemicals their skin puts out makes it itchy. Addicts may have scabs, rotten teeth, small pupils and irregular sleep patterns.

Meth has been around since the early 1920s when it was prescribed as a diet aid. Hitler was addicted to meth and gave it to troops so they could stay up and fight.

Americans took it during the Korean War for the same "gotta-stay-awake" purpose.

Waltz said, "Recreational use didn't begin until the early 1980s, but the habit has spread quickly, and it's especially easy to cook in rural areas. That's why we need everyone's help to stop the problem."

Last week's business breakfast was held at the West Wind Supper Club.