Meth use reaches crisis level

By Gray Hughes

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In 2016, 0.56 percent of the people aged 12 or older used methamphetamine, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

In South Dakota, though, that number is 0.88 percent.

There’s a combination of things that is making meth use so common in South Dakota and Pennington County, said Kevin Thom, Pennington County sheriff.

“There’s a lot of meth available,” he said. “And the meth we see here (in Pennington County) mainly comes across our southern border into the United States, and it makes its way north.”

For context, out of the six states that borders South Dakota (North Dakota, Wyoming, Minnesota, Montana, Iowa and Nebraska), only North Dakota has a higher use of methamphetamines at 0.96 percent, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

And, with the prevalence of methamphetamine use is the increase of arrests.

While the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office does not keep records as to where arrests are made, Thom said there have been meth arrests in the Hill City and Keystone areas.

In 2012, methamphetamine arrests made up 26 percent of drug charges in Pennington County, according to the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office.

By 2017, that number jumped to 69 percent.

Likewise, the amount of marijuana arrests decreased, with marijuana making up 48 percent or drug charges in 2012 and 14 percent of drug charges in 2017.

That’s not because fewer people are using marijuana, Thom said, but because many people are taken into custody for having both but plead out of marijuana charges and, normally, the meth charges are the ones that stick.

Overall, the numbers of felony drug arrests have gone up in 2018 over 2017. At the end of November in 2017, there were 1,206 felony drug arrests, according to the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office.

During that same timespan in 2018, there were 1,378 felony drug arrests.

Meth, Thom said, is the major culprit.

Gone are the days of meth-houses like the ones seen in “Breaking Bad,” though, Thom said.

“There is so much meth locally that they don’t need to make it here,” he said.

Now, though, the level of meth use is equal to the use seen 10 to 12 years ago, Thom added.

During that period, there was mass public education regarding the dangers of using meth. Since then, though, there has been a fall-off in education programs.

But that’s not to say nothing is being done.

In Hill City, within the last week, Deputy J. Marcus Isakson of the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office started as the district’s school resource officer (SRO).

Having Isakson in the schools is a vital step in stopping meth use, Thom said.

“Because if someone is talking to the kids and being proactive since there is drug use going on, kids will get a better understanding of the dangers,” Thom said. “For Hill City and the rest of the schools, the SRO is a significant piece of that.”

Education is key to combating the meth crisis in South Dakota, said Vonnie Ackerman with the Western Prevention Resource Center in Rapid City.

The center, which is a part of the Youth and Family Services, helps to put on educational seminars about topics such as methamphetamine usage.

The center has a presentation that they use that was given to them by the state, Ackerman said.

“We have impacted a lot of youth and adults because we know it is a problem,” she said. “The state developed the presentations.”

While there is no true way to study the effectiveness of these programs because someone’s state of mind is not truly known going into a seminar, the center gives out pre- and post-tests after a session.

The tests, she said, shows that the education is working.

The state, too, is helping in the methamphetamine crisis.

“In 2016, (Department of Social Services) launched the Meth Changes Everything campaign,” said Tia Kafka, communications director for the South Dakota Department of Social Services. “The campaign is geared at educating students and communities on the dangers of meth, how individuals are affected by meth and where individuals can find help.”

Prevention providers have visited schools and communities across the state, she said, and have presented to over 14,000 South Dakotans.

While it might be difficult to know what to do when someone is battling a methamphetamine addiction, both Thom and Ackerman said to report the crime and direct the addict to treatment services.

Kafka said a list of providers can be found on the Department of Social Services website at dss.sd.gov/behavioralhealth/agencycounty.aspx.

Education programs, both Thom and Ackerman agreed, are the best way to prevent future methamphetamine addictions.

“I just think you need to continue to raise awareness,” Thom said. “That helps. It goes a long way to help the problem. Without awareness, the problem keeps perpetuating itself.”

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