By Liz Collin

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — While opioid abuse has dominated the headlines, deputies say another drug in western Wisconsin is threatening the livelihood of everyone who lives there.

Polk County has the most meth cases in all of Wisconsin. Investigators believe the drug is somehow connected to nearly all of the crime that happens in that county. WCCO went to see how Wisconsin is making changes to send a message to meth dealers.

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Balsam Lake bills itself as a cozy village nestled in boat country. The blue skies a stark contrast to the call Polk County Investigator Andrew Vitalis received at his daughter’s last track meet.

“He was crying and upset and had meth on him, wanted to know what to do,” Vitalis said.

In a way, the Sheriff’s Office fights the battle in a small town atmosphere, as they sort through one of the bigger meth busts they’ve made. Meth users and dealers fill court calendars, daily.

“The rest of them are known to use methamphetamine by me,” Deputy Anthony Grimm said.

From domestic calls to property crimes, deputies say the drug is behind nearly all of the county’s crimes.

“You can just watch the spiderweb grow and the dominoes start to fall,” Investigator Vitalis said.

For the last few years, Polk County has lead the way in meth cases — 152 last year alone — despite having far fewer people than more populated Wisconsin counties.

“I would describe it as beyond an epidemic,” Drug Investigator Tony Grimm said.

Grimm blames that epidemic on Polk County’s proximity to Minnesota and the metro area. A crackdown on cold medicine in the early 2000s all but put meth cooks out of business.

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Now, meth gets to Polk County from Mexico, and deputies Grimm and Vitalis say the drug has never been more pure or cheap to buy — 80 percent less than just a few years ago.

“You can almost feel a collective sigh of relief on a street when something like this happens,” Vitalis said.

In this case, they caught Brice Wallace dealing meth in Clear Lake, selling to more than 20 people in the town of barely a thousand.

“It’s pretty overwhelming when you look at the impact of that small community,” Vitalis said.

In April, Cole Ronningen received a 13-year prison sentence.

His is the steepest sentence to date after Wisconsin’s Attorney General picked an assistant last year to prosecute such cases, hoping to send a stronger message to meth dealers in the northwest part of the state.

“We’re giving him every case that he’ll take,” Grimm said.

Investigators believe this has only been allowed to fester in the shadows of the opioid crisis — all while this addiction is proving more destructive to a way of life in western Wisconsin.

“One way or another, we have to solve it,” Grimm said.

In addition to steeper prison sentences, deputies would like to see more of a crackdown along the Mexico border. They say it’s no secret where the drug is coming from, and the only way it stops is if the flow of the drug stops.

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They say border security has turned into a political hot=button issue tied to the immigration debate — but they say the meth epidemic has nothing to do with that.

Liz Collin