STAPLES-Howard Weekley caused a lot of havoc for almost 20 years in the town of Staples.

Weekley, a recovering meth addict, shared his story at a community awareness forum titled "Meth: Not on my block," Thursday at Central Lakes College in Staples in front of a room of law enforcement officers and community members.

He shared his story from the beginning of being raised in a poor upbringing with parents who drank a lot to how he started drinking at a young age, which led to using methamphetamines. He was in and out of jail more times than he can count and finally found himself at rock bottom crying in his 14-year-old daughter's lap. He learned about Minnesota Teen Challenge, found God, started running, as that was his way to feel close to God, and finally "I felt at peace for the first time in my life," Weekley said. He now lives in Alexandria and has a good job.

Weekley's story started out the panel discussion on how methamphetamines are affecting the community and what people can do about it. The forum was sponsored by Staples Motley Beyond Poverty, Staples Police Department, Lakewood Health System, Central Lakes College, Todd County Citizens Against Drugs Coalition, Staples Motley School District and the Staples Motley Area Community Foundation.

There were nine panelists who were Staples Police Chief Melissa Birkholtz; Don Burns, Central Minnesota Drug and Violent Offender Task Force; Jamie Pearson, West Central Drug and Violent Offender Task Force; Kyra Ladd, Wadena County Attorney; David Determan, Health Education Coordinator for Todd County Health and Human Services; LuAnn Gammon, a licensed clinical social worker/clinical therapist at Lakewood Health System in Staples; Kevin Maurer, Morrison County Meth Task Force; and Kimberly Pilgrim, Meta 5 Program director, CLC.

Birkholtz often hears from people who think there is nothing they can do about methamphetamines in their communities, and that is not the case. She encourages people to report suspicious activity if they see it in their neighborhood, such as a high volume of traffic at night or more people around than usual.

Burns, who has been a narcotics investigator for 30 years, said he has seen an increase in meth addiction.

"If you would have told me before you could buy a pound of meth here in western Minnesota I would say you are crazy," Burns said. "Now it's all the time."

Burns said meth addicts are not bad people, they are people who do bad things because of their addiction. Burns said seeing the high number of children in out-of-home placements in Wadena and Todd counties is "shocking."

Burns said meth affects everyone, as there is an increased rate of crime and a high volume of cases for social services. The root of the cause of why most of the inmates are in jail is because of drugs.

"There are only two ways to support a meth addiction," Burns said. "Dealing or stealing."

Pearson said he remembers the first time he met Weekley, who was high on meth at the time, fled the scene to avoid arrest.

"His eyes were as big as softballs," Pearson said of Weekley.

Pearson said meth addicts lose track of family and friends, don't go to work, start stealing and the results are a higher poverty rate. Pearson said the addicts go to jail, have bad hygiene and have no insurance, so the cost falls on the taxpayers.

Ladd said the Wadena and Todd County attorney' offices have high caseloads relating to drug addictions. Ladd said there are babies born addicted to meth and the children have a lot of needs because the parents are addicted. Ladd said the counties received a National Joint Powers Alliance grant to help combat the drug problem, but said the problem is not going away.

Ladd said what she would like to see is different penalties for the sellers than the users. She said right now the penalties are the same and if it will continue she does not believe it will help in the fight against meth. Ladd encouraged community members at the forum to talk with their legislators about getting stricter penalties for sellers who bring the drug to the community.

Ladd said when stricter penalties became law regarding making meth, the number of meth labs drastically were reduced.

"When the law changed we started to see meth labs go away," Ladd said. "It didn't stop it from coming here, but the labs stopped."

Determan said last week there were 12 out of 44 inmates at the Todd County Detention Center there on related meth charges. Statistically, there were 57,397 drugs seized by Minnesota drug agents in 2006-07 and 101,374 seized in 2014.

Besides the damages a person does to themselves on meth, Determan said meth causes 5 to 6 pounds of toxic waste per a pound of meth produced. Determan said it can cost up to $35,000 to clean up a house with meth.

To stop meth, Determan said it will take a community. He encouraged people to start a neighborhood watch program to reduce drug activity and to have people call 911 if they see suspicious activity.

Gammon discussed the effects of the drug on pregnant mothers and their babies, where they see a lack in prenatal care, premature births, a rise in syphilis and the difficulties with children after they are born addicted to meth.

Gammon said it typically takes law enforcement to bring the addict into the hospital and it takes a lot of support to help the addict.

Maurer said the real issue with meth is when a person tries it for the first time they will immediately become addicted to it as the drug takes all the endorphins and gives the person one big rush. Maurer said meth addicts do not plan to become addicted to the controlled substance. He said many people will try it on a spur of a moment, such as they were out drinking at a party and someone gives them meth, they try it and they then are hooked.

Maurer said the drug damages the transmitters in the brain and causes the user to be depressed. Maurer said when the addict is in recovery, they not only have to get through their addiction, they also have to get through their depression.

Maurer said another drug that is a problem in the area is prescribed medications. Maurer said people need to be careful with pain medication.

Pilgrim said her son was a star athlete and a high achiever until someone gave him some adderall. Pilgrim said he then got hooked on meth and went down the dark path. Pilgrim said she struggled to find a treatment center for her son as there was a two-month waiting list.

"We don't have two months," she said.

Pilgrim said her son did get help and has been successful for several years now.

At the end of the forum, community members were able to ask questions. One was if meth is the biggest problem in the counties, compared to other drugs. Pearson said meth is the biggest problem and then prescription pills, which has been increasing.

Burns said Morrison County is seeing an increase in heroin use and said it will "come our way" in Todd and Wadena counties, as the drug comes into the communities. Burns said the Mexican cartels run heroin like a business and the drug is flooded into bigger cities around the country and then moves into the smaller communities.

When asked how students could be better educated about drugs, Pearson said having a person like Weekley talk about their addiction and recovery is a good thing. Ladd said educators should not use scare tactics to teach students about drugs. Instead, she said having candid conversations with students works. She said having a safe adult for students to talk to is beneficial.

Maurer agreed scare tactics don't work. He said the former DARE program didn't work because it used scare tactics. Maurer said students associate the program with an officer with a gun, who said drugs are bad and when they used drugs for the first time, it felt good. Maurer said the program taught children at too young of an age.

Maurer believes society is in denial about what's happening in communities on the impact of meth. He said when someone dies in a crash because they were on meth, the part about them being on meth is not made public.

JENNIFER STOCKINGER may be reached at jennifer.stockinger@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5851. Follow me at www.twitter.com/jennewsgirl on Twitter.