“My friend Stephanie used to live here,” the woman said. “I’m just checking the place out.” The woman seemed very keen on visiting the attic.
The student didn’t know what was going on. She woke up her roommate and together they eventually called the police. By the time the police got there, the woman was gone.
The student’s roommate went back to the room to see if anything had been stolen. When he looked under the bed he found himself “face to face with a woman who looked ‘like a meth billboard times 10.’”
“After a short shoving match, the woman threw” a laptop at the roommate, “giving her time to kick out the screen of the window and crawl outside to escape.”
Turns out the house used to be a meth house and these users were returning because they’d used there before.
The place had actually been used to manufacture meth, but that information doesn’t need to be told to renters.
That’s just one of countless stories that meth has inflicted upon the state.
Meth Use in Montana: Numbers and Costs
In 2005 it was figured that Montana’s meth problem was costing the state more than $300 million. By 2008 that’d fallen to $200 million.
Losses in worker productivity because of meth were figured at $65 million.
“In response,” the Flathead Beacon reported, “the state Legislature and federal government passed laws making it harder to get the key ingredients used to make meth.” This contributed to the decline in meth labs.
In 2002 Montana had 122 clandestine meth labs but by 2007 that’d fallen to just 6 labs, and then 7 in 2008.
Meth lab cleanup was still costing the state $54,000 for both of those years. Costs ranged from a low of $1,739 for an apartment cleanup in Great Falls to a high of $16,166 for a house in Bozeman.
The 2005 Legislature also set up “five recovery homes” around the state, including “a women’s recovery center in Kalispell.” The average stay in those homes is 6 to 12 months. These efforts seemed to work as well.
From 2005 to 2007 Montana saw a 72% decrease in workers testing positive for meth. Also during that time meth-related crime fell 62% and teen meth use fell nearly 45%.
Still, meth was costly for the state.
By 2008 it was figured Montana’s health-related costs for meth use and addiction were $49 million.
In 2008 the State of Montana paid $6 million for the “unique and challenging treatment needs” of meth addicts.
It’s figured that in 2008 alone, meth use cost the state $208 million.
When you look at the cost of meth associated crime and criminal justice costs, you see that we went from $167 million in 2005 to $76 million in 2007.
Like Montana’s typical boom and bust cycles, Meth use has ticked up again.
In 2010 the Montana Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation had 68 meth cases. By 2012 that was up to 143 cases and in 2015 they had 232 cases. The Division figures that 80% of their drug cases involve meth.
Nationally in 2010 there were 353,000 meth users. By 2013 that’d jumped to 595,000 users, a 60% increase.
From 2013-14 the number of people in the Flathead Valley Chemical Dependency Clinic that had meth problems was 12%. That was a lot lower than alcohol, which came in at 59%, or marijuana, which came in at 16%.
By 2015-16, however, those struggling with meth use had jumped to nearly 18%.
Ed McLean of the Montana Drug Task Force team said in 2015 that “the increase in methamphetamine use is one of those mysteries because you have a drug that is so dangerous and so harmful.”
The 2017 Montana Meth Summit
Democratic Senator Diane Sands, and Republican Senator Eric Moore, called for the 2017 Montana Meth Summit to discuss a lot of the numbers that you just read.
It was to be held in the Montana Capitol’s Old Supreme Court Chambers at 10 AM on February 18.
By 10 AM there were lots of people milling about but the meeting had yet to start.
I counted about 40 people in the room, including the various legislators.
Eric Moore got things started around 10:05 by laying out the agenda and the goals.
The summit allocated 45 minutes to each of the four panels and then 10 minutes for questions.
The goals of the summit were to:
- Raise public awareness
- Educate and inform the legislative body
- Lay the groundwork towards long term solutions focusing on the areas of coordination, prioritization and innovation.
The four panels were:
- Family and Community Impacts
- Tribal Impacts
Attorney General Tim Fox was also in attendance at the summit.
The Enforcement/Interdiction panel got started with testimony from Brian Lockerby with the Montana Department of Criminal Investigation.
That agency had a handout that listed all kinds of meth-related problems in Montana and shows images of busts.
Lockerby said the meth problem in Montana right now is the worst he’s ever seen it.
After that he went into a history of meth and got up to modern times. He mentioned that almost all the big meth seizures around the state now have heroin thrown in as well.
The Mexican drug cartels, according to Lockerby, are growing desperate to recover the profits they’ve lost from legalized marijuana in certain American states, and they see meth as a way to do that.
Most of Montana’s meth is coming from Mexico, via Washington and then our interstate routes.
Previous reporting has shed light on this.
Most of Montana’s meth was being imported along the I-15 and I-90 interstate corridors from “super labs” located out of state, typically as far away as Mexico. At the same time there was also an increase in heroin coming in.
A lot of it is simple economics. An ounce of meth sells for $450 in Seattle but dealers can make $1,200 in Montana.
Lockerby said the price used to be $7,500 a pound. He then got into the various sizes of meth when it’s sold.
We’ve seen these stories in the news as well.
In November 2016 a 33-year-old Missoula man was arrested with over a pound of meth.
He was charged with conspiracy to distribute as the pound would have been broken down into about 500, one-gram bags to sell on the street.
A common amount that people buy on the street is an 8-ball, which is 3.5 grams.
So this man could distribute 142 8-balls worth of meth, netting himself as much as $35,000 if he sold it that way. Even if he sold it by the ounce, or in 28-gram increments, he’d be making over $20,000.
When you combine addiction to meth with the chance for easy profits from selling it, it’s easy to understand why we see so many more people getting caught with huge amounts.
The Missoula man had been living at the house he was arrested at for 15 years.
"Neighbors say they frequently saw different crowds of people going in and out of the home, all through the day and night. They say the residents never used the front door and always blacked out the windows."
One neighbor figured the house would have to be totally rebuilt, considering there was so much meth activity and then so much damage after police raided the place.
What effect this might have on area property values is unknown.
Back at the summit, Lockerby mentioned that law enforcement’s main priority is busting the high-level dealers, like that man in Missoula.
His agents average 500 cases a year and his agency spends 70% of its time on meth cases.
Lockerby guarantees that Montana’s average of 70 pounds of seized meth a year is going to skyrocket this year.
After that Lockerby started talking about the need for additional law enforcement officers and funding to deal with the increase in meth that’s expected in Montana in 2017 and beyond.
Lockerby’s testimony ended around 10:25 and then Colonel Tom Butler of the Montana Highway Patrol spoke.
He talked about the increase in seizures and the addition of K-9 units to law enforcement’s meth interdiction efforts. In 2014 the Drug Task Force’s K-9 dog, Tika, sniffed out 18 pounds of meth.
In 2014 the Northwest Montana Drug Task Force alone seized 9 pounds of meth. In 2015 they took in 15 pounds, with an estimated value of $5 million. They took in over 20 pounds in 2016.
In 2009 there were 23 cases of people driving with meth in their system, but by 2012 that’d jumped to 297. Colonel Butler mentioned the increase in costs and crime lab testing times for these cases.
A drunk driving case might take a couple hours, but a meth driving case adds a couple hours more just to jail time processing.
Colonel Butler thinks that many of the road rage issues that we hear about are from people coming down off of meth.
He also mentioned that law enforcement wouldn’t be able to handle these issues without the level of coordination that currently exists between the various agencies at all levels of government.
Butler spoke for 10 minutes and then Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito gave testimony, with the main focus on child abuse and neglect cases.
Twito took office in 2011 and his office had 630 total felony offenses. By 2013 they had 1,300.
Drug cases for his office look like this:
- 3 LSD cases
- 4 Cocaine
- 5 Ecstasy
- 8 Hydromorphine
- 23 Hydrocodone
- 97 Marijuana
- 426 Meth
Twito said his office handled cases where 531 children were removed from their homes in 2016. A total of 266 of those involved meth.
After that we heard about the new drug program that Twito started in Yellowstone County. His goal is to reduce the time from arrest to treatment to 45 days.
Colonel Butler arrested an offender at the end of 2016 and he was in treatment by February 3. Twito said that’s an unheard of timeframe in Montana justice.
Still, Twito mentions that 70% of meth offenders will get into trouble once again.
Twito is also frustrated by the inability of state agencies to communicate. He’s found that one state department has done a toxicology test on a person, while another agency is in the process of paying to get one done.
At that point Diane Sands cut off that panel’s testimony and allowed senators to ask question.
One senator asked if marijuana was a gateway drug for meth, but Twito said he couldn’t draw any conclusions with that.
Questions about the tribal drug problem were asked, and the emphasis was given to the problem of lack of communication, coordination, and infrastructure between the tribes and the federal and state agencies.
Lockerby mentioned that there hasn’t been much progress in getting onto tribal lands to investigate.
At that point it was about 11 AM and a 5-minute break was called.
The Family and Community Impacts Panel got things started off next, though about 15 people had left by then.
Laura Smith with Child and Protective Services spoke about the affect of meth on families.
In 2008 we know the state spent $12 million to care for the children that were taken out of meth homes.
By 2010 there were 800 children in the state’s foster care system “because of neglect stemming from parental substance abuse.”
By April 2016 that number had doubled to 1,600 children. The Great Falls Tribune reported that 60% of the city’s 150 children in foster care were there because of their parents’ meth use.
At the summit, Smith told us that 65% of Child and Protective Services cases involve drugs and 42% of those involve meth.
The three counties with the highest meth cases are Yellowstone, Silver Bow and Cascade.
At the foundation of the meth problem, according to Smith, is the need for treatment and counseling, and the access to those services.
Zoe Barnard of the Addictive and Mental Disorders Division of DPHHS spoke next.
She said that 9.4% of Montanans have a diagnosed substance abuse disorder.
Half of the 555 suicides that the agency has toxicology for had drugs or alcohol in their system.
About 10% of Montana’s population would be chemically dependent if given a diagnosis, or about 88,000 people.
The economic burden from substance abuse in Montana is immense, with $714 million in hospital costs from 2010 to 2013.
Beth Mclaughlin of the Youth Court spoke next.
She mentioned that youth meth offenses are low, dropping 25% over the past decade. Of the more than 8,000 youth cases in 2016, around 40 of them involved meth.
The youth correctional facilities have seen their populations drop by 50%. Right now Pine Hills has 44 boys and they used to have over 100. Teen smoking, drinking and drinking and driving are all down.
This has all happened because Youth Court began to look at things differently about a decade ago.
There are currently 3,300 children in foster care in Montana today, and Mclaughlin worries that they’ll eventually wind up in our justice system because of the trauma they’ve seen in their lives.
The final speaker on this panel was Dr. Aaron Wernham of the MT Healthcare Foundation, a nonprofit healthcare foundation.
They expect to give out around $6 million in grants to help with Montana health this year.
Around 93% of Montanans with a substance abuse disorder are not getting treatment.
If you spend $1 on treatment you save $7 to $9 on incarceration.
There was a short break for lunch at this point, and I was happy to get a free sandwich and cookie.
After that the Tribal Impacts Panel got started, around noon.
Legislators listened while eating. The sound of potato chip bags crinkling filled the Old Supreme Court Chambers.
When it comes to meth on the reservations, things are bad. The relapse rate over the 24 hours from arrest/treatment to the next use of meth is 90%.
Miranda Kirk of the Aaniiih Nakoda Anti-drug Movement spoke about recovery programs, but the numbers that successfully complete those are quite low, with just 18 last year.
Her husband, Bryce Kirk, spoke about their work on the Hi-Line when it comes to combating meth.
He says people on the Fort Peck Reservation in particular want to get help and want to get healthy.
He knows 300 people that could benefit from what the meth summit was doing today, just talking about the issue.
It sounded like Bryce Kirk was a former meth user. He mentioned how he stopped, but also how his 11-year-old nephew started using.
He talked up the peer mentoring program that allows Indians to talk to each other about these problems, and how to overcome them.
Many peer mentors feel the need to give back to their community because they’ve taken so much.
Kirk was a good speaker and I could tell that he could have a very positive impact in his community.
The Judiciary/Corrections Panel started at 1:05 PM.
Our state’s meth problem has wreaked havoc with our justice system.
Recently in Lake County they’ve seen felony filings go from “about 300 cases a year, to 700 cases a year” over a period of four years. It’s figured that “80% of all crime” is associated with drugs.
Most of these crimes aren’t for meth, but because people are stealing goods and money to support their habit. Eventually they get caught, but many times they’re released right back onto the street to do it again.
“If someone here is arrested for criminal possession of methamphetamine,” District Judge James Manley says, “there’s usually no room” for them in the jail as the jail is at 120% capacity and “is reserved for the most dangerous, the most violent” offenders.
In Polson in particular they’re trying to combat the problems associated with this approach – releasing people back into the population, where they’ll get no help and just seek out more drugs – by opening drug courts.
The program that Judge Manley is a part of got started with a $53,000 donation from the Gianforte Family Foundation. An upcoming grant from the Department of Justice will help keep it going.
“If we can help 50 people a year so that they don’t come back into the system, or 4 people a year,” Manley said, then “it’s worth doing.”
Beth Mclaughlin was back to give testimony, this time for the Montana Department of Corrections.
She mentioned that the lack of judges is really slowing down our criminal justice system, mainly because of the increase in felony cases, many involving meth.
When our judges are tied up with these criminal cases, they can’t get to the overwhelming number of civil cases that are waiting.
The 8th District Court, for instance, has seen its caseload go from 696 cases in 2009 to 1,022 in 2016.
Child abuse and neglect cases take even longer, thus ensuring that non-meth issues have to take a back seat.
The legislature just added three new judges for the state, but it’s likely they’ll have a full caseload very soon.
After that Judge Greg Pinski of the 8th Judicial District Court spoke.
He said he was naïve when he first started, thinking that drugs didn’t have much of an impact on him or society.
Now he spends about 80% of his time dealing with drug-related issues.
People aren’t breaking into your garage to get a new power saw, he says, they’re breaking into your garage to steal the power saw to pawn it to get money to buy drugs.
In Great Falls on February 15 there was the kind of meth bust that’s become all too common.
A property owner called police to investigate his rental property because he figured the tenants were doing drugs.
When police came the young man told them they had to wait as he had to get the place cleaned up.
So they waited. Then he let them in. Upon entering, the police saw a bag of meth and a meth pipe just sitting on a table in the middle of the living room.
As if that wasn’t enough, a moment later a woman came out of the bathroom with a tourniquet on her arm, either because she just shot up some meth or was planning to do so.
The young man was connected to a $2,500 hotel theft that’d taken place about 6 weeks earlier.
He’d worked at the hotel and knew exactly where the best audio/visual equipment to steal was.
He stole it, and that got him several more week’s worth of money to feed his habit.
Both individuals are young, both are looking at serious time behind bars and/or years in treatment/recovery.
To Judge Pinski’s way of thinking, just about every crime is drug-related.
He says that 90’% of the child neglect cases are being caused by addiction. They typical case is a 2-year-old that hasn’t had their diaper changed in 2 days.
Judge Pinksi outlined what the justice system is up against.
Eating a meal might give you a 100-unit dopamine boost. Sex might be 200. With cocaine it might be 400.
With meth use, however, you get a 2,400-unit boost of dopamine.
People simply cannot stop.
Judge Pinski tells us we need treatment. Drug abuse is a chronically relapsing disease.
Our treatment courts are essential for dealing with this issue. Judge Pinski has 80 participants in his two treatment courts, one of which focuses on veterans.
He says that 60% of the people enter a drug treatment court, but just 30% of those have future problems.
Next up was Megan Coy with the Department of Corrections.
She told us that possession of dangerous drugs was the #1 reason why women are in prison in Montana.
She tells us that meth use is driving up the cost of medical care in Montana.
The average cost to treat Hepatitis C, for instance, is $28,000 and we have over 300 inmates in Montana prisons with that condition. Many got it from intravenous drug use.
Community-based treatment costs a lot less than correctional-based treatment, mainly because people are responsible for those costs, not the state.
We know that a year in drug treatment costs about $4,000 whereas a year in prison costs the state over $30,000.
The big problem is that people don’t have access to that treatment.
There’s a women’s facility in Boulder and a men’s facility in Lewistown. More are being built, but the need will continue to rise.
We know that in America, as many as 2,500 kids begin experimenting with prescription drugs each day.
We have to have the tools ready to treat those people, and Montana is way behind.
The Reasons Why People Use Meth
Representative Jessica Karjalla finally asked this question just before the summit got over around 2 PM.
Judge Pinski mentioned seeing a son, father, and grandfather in his drug court. He talked about babies that are born addicted to drugs.
If that baby isn’t born addicted to drugs society will save about $750,000.
Judge Pinski mentioned trauma as a main reason, particularly with our combat veterans.
They can’t sleep, so they take medications to sleep, then that doesn’t work so they drink, then the pain medication is doubled. Harder drugs often follow.
I did some additional research to find answers why people start using meth.
Researchers have found that people usually start using drugs because of the easy availability, the fact that they’re risk-taking individuals, and perhaps a bit of alienation and depression thrown in.
Researchers also found that people continued to use drugs not so much to get high but as a way to cope with their problems and the stresses in their lives. The drugs were altering their brain chemistry in such a way that they felt they needed them to get through life.
Studies have shown that people choose their drugs based on how they want to handle stress. “Heroin users wanted to numb themselves,” researchers concluded, while “amphetamine users wanted to actively confront it.”
So…why are people using meth?
When that question is posed to addicts in treatment they often give answers like:
- The high
- The rush
- The euphoria
- The sense of power
After that comes lots of sexual reasons:
- The sex
- The “freaky sex”
- The sexual endurance
- To “enjoy receptive anal sex more easily”
It’s not until we get to the ninth reason listed that more, under-the-surface reasons begin to appear:
- To handle feelings of loneliness
- To relieve feelings of low self-esteem
- To relieve boredom
- To cope with depression
The next dozen reasons often involve meth’s ability to make a user enjoy the club scene more, stay up longer, lose weight, or just feel more confident or creative.
Combating Meth Use Before It Starts
Many now realize that substance abuse issues start when people are very young, usually when they’re teenagers. Iceland has had a lot of experience with this.
Back in the 1990s the teens in Iceland drank more than their peers in Europe. “You couldn’t walk the streets in downtown Reykjavik on a Friday night because it felt unsafe,” one resident said. “There were hordes of teenagers getting in-your-face drunk.”
In 1998 the percentage of Icelandic 15- and 16-year-olds who’d been drunk over the past month was at 42%. The number who smoked cigarettes each day was at 23%. The number smoking pot was at 17%.
Iceland knew it had to do something, and it did.
It saw a link between drugs and brain chemistry, as well as stress in people’s lives and how they coped with it.
Many people turned to drugs to handle that stress, but many more chose natural highs like exercise or other activities. It was the latter that Iceland focused on.
They began to ask the question, “what if you could use healthy alternatives to drugs and alcohol as part of a programme not to treat kids with problems, but to stop kids drinking or taking drugs in the first place?”
To them, it was clear that the American approach of warning kids about the dangers that alcohol and drugs posed was not working. There had to be another answer.
Through surveys the country found that those who participated in organized activities “three or four times a week,” spent more time with their parents, felt cared for at school, and didn’t stay out late at nights were less likely to use alcohol or drugs.
A plan called Youth in Iceland was rolled out. Alcohol and cigarette laws were changed to make it harder for young people to get them. Links between parents and schools were strengthened. Curfew laws were passed. Parents were required to sign pledges regarding their children’s behavior.
State funding for organized sports, music classes, art classes, dance classes and other clubs was also increased. Leisure Cards of $300 a year were issued to low-income families to help pay for recreational activities.
By 2016 the drinking rate for 15- and 16-year-olds had fallen from 42% to 5%, smoking had fallen from 23% to 3%, and marijuana use had fallen to from 17% to 7%.
Iceland decided to change, instituted measures to do that, and it worked.
In no way, however, does the problem compare with alcohol.
The Bureau of Business and Economic Research figures that alcohol problems cost Montana $500 million a year.
Back in 2005 Montana was spending $11 million on alcohol treatment, $100 million on medical costs for alcohol abuse, and $297 million on lost productivity because of alcohol.
By comparison, it was figured that Montana’s meth problem was costing the state around $300 million in 2005.
In 2008 the state spent $49 million on health-related costs stemming from meth, half of what was spent on alcohol-related health costs.
It’s figured that in 2008 alone, meth use cost the state $208 million, or about $300 million less than what alcohol use cost us.
In 2004, 34% of Montana youths were binge drinking. Teen meth use doesn’t even come close to that.
In 2005, Montana saw 2,399 individuals enter alcohol treatment facilities in the state. Another 4,290 were in treatment for alcohol and drugs combined, for a total of 6,689 people in treatment in the state that year.
More than 70% of those were men and half of those admitted were between the ages of 21 and 49.
So when you compare meth and alcohol, it’s not even close – alcohol ruins lives a lot more than meth does.
But alcohol is legal, and the state makes money from it.
So we ignore those problems, or at the very least, put up with them.
Meth is not legal or taxed, however, so there’s nothing good that comes from it like with alcohol.
The true issue isn’t meth or alcohol use, but substance abuse.
Montana has to get a handle on that.
One of the best ways to start is simply to talk about it.
Talk about it more, reduce the stigma, and get people the help they need.
These are long-term solutions that seem daunting in the face of our state’s meth epidemic.
With hard work and determination, however, we can solve this problem.
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