DEA releases 2019 National Drug Threat Assessment

Annual report outlines strategic review of threats posed by drugs and drug traffickers

WASHINGTON – DEA Acting Administrator Uttam Dhillon today announced the publication of the 2019 National Drug Threat Assessment, which outlines the threats posed to the United States by domestic and international drug trafficking and the abuse of illicit drugs.

“This year’s report illustrates a shifting drug landscape in the United States,” said Acting Administrator Dhillon. “We’re pleased that in 2018, drug overdose deaths declined over four percent overall, with even greater decreases – over 13 percent – in overdoses from controlled prescription opioids. Many challenges remain, however, including the spread of fentanyl and methamphetamine across the country. DEA and its partners will continue to work diligently to combat the drug trafficking organizations that bring these deadly substances into our country and endanger the American people.”

Illicit drugs, and the criminal organizations that traffic them, continue to represent significant threats to public health, law enforcement, and national security in the United States. As the National Drug Threat Assessment describes, the opioid threat continues at epidemic levels, affecting large portions of the United States. Meanwhile, the stimulant threat, including methamphetamine and cocaine, is worsening and becoming more widespread as traffickers continue to sell increasing amounts outside of each drugs’ traditional markets.

2019 NDTA findings of note:

  • The opioid threat (controlled prescription drugs, synthetic opioids, and heroin) continues at ever-increasing epidemic levels, affecting large portions of the United States.
  • The stimulant threat (methamphetamine and cocaine) is worsening and becoming more widespread as traffickers continue to sell increasing amounts outside of each drugs’ traditional markets.
  • New psychoactive substances remain challenging and the domestic marijuana situation is evolving as state-level medical and recreational legalization continues.
  • In 2017, drug poisoning deaths were the leading cause of injury death in the United States and reached their highest recorded level. Every year since 2011, drug poisoning deaths have outnumbered deaths by firearms, motor vehicle crashes, suicide, and homicide. Approximately 192 people died every day from drug poisoning in 2017.

The National Drug Threat Assessment provides a yearly assessment of the many drug abuse and drug trafficking challenges local communities face. Highlights in the report include usage and trafficking trends for drugs such as prescription drugs, heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, marijuana and the hundreds of synthetic drugs. New to this year’s assessment is an expanded section on gangs – including street gangs, prison gangs, and outlaw motorcycle gangs – which now details gang activity geographically by DEA field division.

The assessment factors in data from many sources, including drug seizures, drug purity, laboratory analyses, information on the involvement of organized criminal groups, and survey data provided to DEA by state and local law enforcement agencies across the country.

Read About Montana Meth Project

Montana Meth Project: Has It Curbed Teen Meth Use?

The Montana Meth Project is a unique and large-scale undertaking that aims to prevent teens from using meth for the first time. The Montana Meth Project seeks to achieve this through a combination of public service announcements and messages, public policy, and outreach in the community.

One of the key resources people can turn to is also the MethProject.org, which provides a great deal of research and information that could be relevant to teens and their parents.

The Costs of Meth
The mission of the Montana Meth Project, which was started by Thomas M. Siebel, is to create an effective prevention model for drug abuse that can be replicated nationwide. Sibel had a history in the business world, so he wanted to approach the prevention of meth use in a private-sector way.

As the name indicates, the Montana Meth Project was started in the state of Montana, which is among the top states in the U.S. in terms of per capita treatment admissions for methamphetamine. Some of the social costs cited by the Montana Meth Project include the fact that 53 percent of children in the state in foster care are there because of meth, and 20 percent of adults in treatment are there because of the drug. The project also highlights the fact that half of the adults in prison are there because of a crime related to meth.

The project has been cited by the White House because of its effectiveness and also because it stands to be a model for the rest of the country.

How Effective is the Montana Meth Project?
So, has it curbed teen meth use?

According to the group behind the Meth Project, they have been credited with helping produce significant declines in the use of the drug, and they were named by Barron’s as the third most effective philanthropy in the world.

According to research, since the introduction of the Project, teen meth use has gone down 63 percent in Montana and 56 percent in Idaho. It’s also gone down 65 percent in Arizona, which are states where the Project has a presence.

According to the Meth Project and data from resources like the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Montana now ranks number 39 in the country for meth abuse, and along with teen meth use declining by 63 percent, the project says adult meth use has declined by an even more impressive 72 percent, and crimes related to meth have gone down by 62 percent.

There are also affiliates now located in six states which include Colorado, Georgia, and Wyoming as well as the states named above.

While the project started out with private funding, after it experienced what was viewed as some success, legislators in Montana decided to contribute public funding as well. However, that did create some controversy, because opponents of the Montana Meth Project feel that media campaigns aren’t necessarily effective, and the results of studies showing the success of the work of the Meth Project weren’t well-proven.

Messaging
The Montana Meth Project uses an approach that they describe as “research-based messaging campaigns.” To do this, they conduct surveys and focus groups that show them what people think and feel about meth, and they then drive their messaging forward with that research.

The project has been in place since 2005, and the overall objective is to provide education to teens on an early and often basis.

MethProject.org was put in place to provide a multimedia experience that answers the questions teens most often have about meth and its effects. MethProject.org then builds on what’s available on the website through TV, radio and print ads, as well as digital and social campaigns.

Attorney General William Barr to Visit Kalispell

Attorney General William Barr will be in Kalispell on Friday to meet with law enforcement about the state’s ongoing methamphetamine crisis.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, who will also be in attendance, invited Barr to Kalispell. The round table will feature officials from the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, Kalispell Police Department, Lake County Sheriff’s Office and the U.S. Marshals Service at the Flathead County Sheriff’s Posse Center at 2 p.m.

“It is my honor to bring Attorney General Barr to Kalispell this Friday to join me and members of our local law enforcement community as we address ways of combatting the devastating meth crisis in Montana,” Daines said. “I look forward to working together to protect Montana’s families and communities and look forward to our meeting on Friday.”

While Montana made an effort to curb meth use in the state back in the early 2000s — most notably through the Montana Meth Project campaign — the drug has made a comeback in recent years.

Aftershock: where next for charity advertising?

Whether raising donations or raising awareness, charity campaigning has a long history.

Take the “associational charities” of the 18th century – which saw the great and good such as painter Hogarth and composer Handel launching subscription concerts and events to fund the Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury, rebranding its inhabitants as innocents rather than wantons, deserving of your charity, not your opprobrium.

There are three key audience responses embedded in charity advertising’s DNA – shock, empathy and fear.

Scroll forward two centuries to the first Save the Children campaign, launched just after World War One when its co-founder, Eglantyne Jebb, was arrested for distributing leaflets containing shocking images of famine-ravaged children under the headline: ‘Our Blockade has caused this – millions of children are starving to death’. She was found guilty, but the prosecuting council offered to pay her £5 fine – an early, tangible example of shock tactics bending the heart strings even in the offices of the law.

There are three key audience responses embedded in charity advertising’s DNA – shock, empathy and fear, all wrapped up in the realisation that ‘it could be you’. Cast an eye across the charity campaigns and public service announcements of yesteryear and you’ll find revealing capsule reflections of that period’s societal concerns, attitudes, and crises, whether its foreign wars, natural disasters, or public health and safety warnings.

In a digital environment awash with arresting, disturbing images, shock is not what it was.

Take those notorious PSAs for the “haunted generation” of 1970s children, sugary snack guzzlers soaking up the horrors of Lonely Water and its ilk; the stark hopelessness embedded in those Protect and Survive post-nuclear attack guides to survival, or the DHSS’s shocking, bombastic “don’t die of ignorance” AIDS campaign of the mid-1980s.

The hard-hitting shock approach continued into the 2000s with the likes of Tony Kaye’s poster and PSA campaign for The Montana Meth Project, gritty, punchy and straight to the point. Kaye was one of a number of big names to lend their talents to the project – Darren Aronofsky and Alejandro González Iñárritu among them. Rey Mundo, then creative director at, recalls their impact on the local community. “In Montana, a bunch of people were upset at the graphic nature of the work, and they wanted the council to take it all down, but a bunch of high school kids showed up to speak against that. It was a powerful moment for us.”

Since then, of course, the media landscape has proliferated and multiplied to the point where our screen environment often looms larger than the one in which we live and breath. Fewer kids need to be warned from lonely waters these days – they’ve got better things to do indoors, in front of a screen. Which makes cutting through with real-world problems that much trickier. They’re so easy to skip or turn off.

In a digital environment awash with arresting, disturbing images, shock is not what it was. Which means creatives are having to forego the time-honoured tactics of yore for a more stealthy, enveloping approach, one that works on the platforms of both heart and mind. We wanted to make sure we were as good as the shows such as 24 Hours in A&E… After all, this is what the public was watching every evening in their millions.

Take the St John Ambulance TV campaign, headed by BBH’s chief creative officer, Ian Heartfield, which kicked off on a Sunday night during Downton back in 2012 with an arresting, uncomfortable debut that highlighted how a little First Aid knowledge could save the life of a loved one – its impact sharpened by the ordinariness of the setting.

“For several years we had made what were arguably some of the most shocking charity ads of the time,” says Heartfield of the campaign, “from a boy falling from a tree in front of his dad, to a man recovering from cancer only to lose his life choking on a burger.” There were complaints to the ASA about this, and the subsequent controversy created more column inches and TV coverage than a media spend ever could. “It did the job of putting the charity firmly on the map,” says Heartfield. “But what it didn’t do was increase the number of people taking First Aid lessons. At this point it became clear that no amount of shock was going to get people over the apathy barrier.”

Thanks to the world being on our mobiles, we have all seen and heard of the most awful, shocking, terrifying things, much more so than in the past. We have become numb to horror.

So, he and the team took a different path – giving viewers of The Chokeables First Aid tips that could save the life of a baby. “We wanted people to actively engage in this film and share it – and the lesson – among friends and family. This meant that shock tactics were out.” Cute animation replaced disturbing live-action, and a useful life lesson wrapped up in a bundle of charm replaced shock.

“One of the main issues any charitable cause faces is how to make it relevant to people’s everyday lives,” concludes Heartfield. “Competition for eyeballs and donations is intense, so which one is deserving of attention? Is it the one that comes at the topic from an angle I have never seen before? The one that asks me to do something I hadn’t considered doing? [The one that] teaches me something? Or [the one that] moves me in a way that makes it impossible for me not to take action?”

When Hugh Todd, CD at MullenLowe London, started working with creative director Lovisa Silburn on We Are the NHS, he chose two contrasting approaches. The first, narrated by Maxine Peake, focused on the emotional dynamic our NHS inspires. “It needed to evoke pride. It needed to be emotional, to make people feel for this great institution and then to hopefully act and apply,” says Todd. When it came to impact, timing helped. “It first ran during the victorious England penalty shoot out in the World Cup so obviously we got people at a good moment,” says Todd. “We had an amazing response. People told us they had been crying while watching it – hopefully for good reasons.”

Empathy and engagement does not come through the eye alone. Sound, too, has deep emotional impact.

The second spot covered IT and support roles – harder to pull the heart strings, so Todd went for a more purposeful, involving approach. “It appeared at New Year and needed to get people off their sofas and start considering taking an IT or support role in a place where you could make a difference. New Year is when people reassess their lives, so it was the right moment to talk to them.”

Both spots were filmed on location over two days, with all the dramas of the hospital unfolding around them, and in their cameras. Todd’s benchmark, he adds, wasn’t other campaigns, but reality TV. “We wanted to make sure we were as good as the shows such as 24 Hours in A&E… After all, this is what the public was watching every evening in their millions.”

When MD at Don’t Panic London Joe Wade started work on Most Shocking Second a Day for Save the Children in 2014, focusing on the plight of children in Syria’s civil war, neither in-your-face shock tactics nor a documentary approach were going to cut it. The war was in its third year, charity fatigue had set in, and Wade’s brief was to put its victims back on the agenda. “For many reasons and because of budgetary constraints, we knew we’d have to film in London, and that was the genesis for making it about a family in London,” he says. “We realised that would help from an empathy perspective; what if this was happening here?”

Each of the two films was delicately structured, their carefully measured story beats set to provoke empathy, and to bring the singularity of human suffering back to the agenda. “The first half is normal life, then there’s the bomb blast that makes them flee” says Wade, “and a lot of the scenes in the first half are mirrored in the second. Like when she’s brushing her hair, and later you have her hair falling out.”

Empathy and engagement does not come through the eye alone. Sound, too, has deep emotional impact. When BBH CD Nikki Lindman was approached by domestic violence charity Refuge to promote its partnership with Picturehouse Cinemas, she and the team focused on the experience of children in violent relationships.

“Refuge’s core mission is to help women and children escape domestic violence,” says Lindman. “They have more children in their refuges than women, so we felt the experience of a child was a sensitive canvas on which to show the visceral ways in which abuse can take shape.” Keen to eschew gratuitous visual cliches, she focused on sound instead. “You never see the abuse,” she says. “You hear and feel what Jacob, the little boy, is going through.” Let’s face it, there are few things that can really shock us now in 2019.

And then the imagination takes over, and a powerful sense of identification kicks in. “We wanted to take full advantage of the incredible surround sound available in the Picturehouse cinemas,” adds Lindman, “to give the audience a truly enveloping experience of what Jacob and his mother are going through. To craft the sound design so that you don’t see much, but you hear and feel everything, intimately. We needed this to be confronting, but also not visually overcomplicated or gimmicky, to get the most authentic version of what life is like in an abusive home, while still having a narrative with storytelling at its heart.”

BBH’s Heartfield agrees that visual shocks are no longer enough to tell a compelling story. “They can still have a place but let’s face it, there are few things that can really shock us now in 2019. Thanks to the world being on our mobiles, we have all seen and heard of the most awful, shocking, terrifying things, much more so than in the past. We have become numb to horror, so we have to try new ways to get through and tell our stories when we can.”

Meth, Heroin Addiction Continues to Strain Community


Although the Northwest Montana Drug Task Force took less methamphetamine off the streets in 2018 than years past, addiction persists in stressing local systems

Drug addiction continues to strain local law enforcement and medical providers in the Flathead Valley.

The impact of drug addiction — specifically methamphetamine and heroin — was the subject of a Feb. 20 roundtable discussion at Kalispell Regional Healthcare with U.S. Sen. Steve Daines. Medical providers discussed how they continue to see an increase in newborns suffering from the impacts of a parent’s drug addiction.

“It is part of our every day,” said Lisa Smith, a social worker at KRH and a member of the Alliance for a Drug Free Flathead. “The (addiction) crisis is the crisis of our time.”

Between 2010 and 2014, there was a 400 percent increase at KRH in neonatal intensive care unit admissions, mostly due to drugs. In 2017, there were about two-dozen infants born at KRH with neonatal abstinence syndrome. Nationally, about six out of every 1,000 infants are born with neonatal abstinence syndrome. Neonatal abstinence syndrome is a condition that occurs when a newborn is exposed to addictive illegal or prescription drugs while in the mother’s womb.

In 2016 and 2018, KRH received grants to purchase equipment to deal with the increase in neonatal abstinence syndrome. One piece of equipment is a doll that simulates the symptoms of neonatal abstinence syndrome, including unusual irritability, trembling and twitching, stiffness, irregular breathing and even seizures. The hospital also got a special video system that allows its medical specialists to see infants at rural hospitals, including in Ronan, Cut Bank, Shelby, Libby, Conrad, Chester, Glasgow, Havre and Lewistown.

Drug addiction has also led to an increase in property crime, according to Flathead County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Logan Shawback, who works with the Northwest Montana Drug Task Force. Since the Montana Meth Project made headlines in the early 2000s, law enforcement has increasingly confiscated more drugs in the region.

In 2016, the Northwest Montana Drug Task Force took in 28 pounds of meth and a pound of heroin. In 2017, they took in an unprecedented 42 pounds of meth and a half-pound of heroin. And in 2018, the task force took in 13 pounds of meth and three-quarters of a pound of heroin. Despite the sudden drop in meth confiscated last year, Shawback said drug addiction is not on the decline, and his office deals with it every day.

During his visit to Kalispell, Daines said that a multifaceted approach was needed to address Montana’s drug problem, including treatment options and tougher security on the southern border with Mexico.

“You don’t need a silver bullet; you need silver buckshot,” Daines said.

Law enforcement officials said the vast majority of methamphetamine in Montana comes from out of state, including from Mexico. The drug usually comes via Seattle or Salt Lake City. However, some methamphetamine is still produced locally, according to Sheriff Brian Heino. Earlier this month, sheriff’s deputies found three different “one pot” meth labs in one day. A “one pot” meth lab enables someone to produce small amounts of the drug in a single container, usually for personal use.

Overcoming addiction crisis in Montana takes effort on all levels

MISSOULA, Mont. — Levi Bessette never planned on becoming an addict. Nobody does.

“It’s really hard to remember how terrible that was. It’s a lost and lonely that only an addict can understand,” Bessette said.

“People don’t ever say, ‘I want to go kill myself today with these drugs,’ but it happens, and unfortunately we lose those people, and it hurts everybody,” said Detective Dean Chrestenson with the Missoula Police Department, who also works as an officer for the DEA’s drug task force.

Bessette unsuccessfully tried meth.

“It has a higher burning point, and I didn’t know that, so I gave it all away. Which is lucky, because I think if I had done meth, we wouldn’t be talking,” he said.

But he still knows addiction. He recounted the first time he tried cocaine shortly after his father died.

“I did that, and it solved all my problems. I didn’t hurt no more. I didn’t know how to say, ‘I’m sad my dad’s dead. Can somebody give me a hug?’ I didn’t know how to say, ‘I’m scared and alone,’” Bessette said. “And that took all of it away.”

His rock bottom came years later when he left his 2-year-old daughter in the car in the middle of winter to score drugs. He remembers her smiling at him in the rearview mirror.

“And then just getting out of the car and locking the doors and walking away and her looking at me like, ‘Why did you just leave me?’ Who does that?”

The difficult answer is someone consumed by addiction. Bessette doesn’t remember how long it was. He thinks it could have been up to a half hour.

“I know it was freezing-ass cold outside, and she waited in the car looking for a dad who wasn’t there,” Bessette said.

Now, clean for nearly five years, Bessette is a single dad and very close with his daughter. He even brings her to recovery meetings with him, but he worries about her. He knows that addiction is rooted in pain and family history.

“If you have one grandparent and one parent addicted, it’s 900 times more likely you’ll be an addict,” he said. “So if she touches one thing, she’s got at least 900 times. It’s like 16 or 3,200 times, because everybody’s an addict in my family and hers.”

It’s why he spends his off-time helping others overcome their addictions, even driving across the state to help someone struggling. He speaks at groups with Chrestenson, who’s seen a lot in 26 years in law enforcement.

“It’s heartbreaking when our patrol officers have to see first-hand the damage being done and the hurt being done to the children in our community,” Chrestenson told NBC Montana.

We’ve told you about the kids before — an entire generation now at risk for using drugs when they’re older, simply because of the circumstances they were born into.

“Forty-five percent of the foster care kids are in families where methamphetamine is being used and abused,” Montana Attorney General Tim Fox told us.

And there’s more. The state crime lab reports samples testing positive for meth and heroin increased 143 percent in three years. Montana meth-related violations are up 500 percent.

U.S. Border Patrol agents seized 1,800 pounds of meth in 2011. In 2017, they seized more than 10,000 pounds. That’s a 459 percent increase.

“That’s an epidemic. That’s a crisis,” Fox said.

Recently, the Montana Highway Patrol shared photos of a bust that found more than 28 pounds of meth. All of this costs you money. But that’s not why Fox thinks Montanans care.

“Montanans care because it’s the human factor,” he said.

After our last story about the meth epidemic, many of you wrote us and asked what you can do to help with the crisis. Ideas thrown around in conversations include expanding the Montana Meth Project, starting an educational component like what the D.A.R.E. program used to be, more drug courts, advocacy programs, mentorship programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters. They’re all great ideas, but there’s no clear, tangible solution.

“It takes treatment, it takes awareness, it takes enforcement, it takes a community saying, ‘How can we help, how can we make a difference? How can we say not here?’” Chrestenson said.

“If (addicts) just get a little support, it changes the world,” Bessette added.

And there’s another place we may find solutions.

“Right now the iron is hot, and you can strike because the legislature is in Helena,” Fox said. “My office has a number of bills that we’re bringing to directly address the substance use disorder problem.”

Fox also points to Aid Montana, a program launched two years ago that brings agencies, businesses and communities across the state together for the conversation.

But officers will tell you where there’s a void, someone fills it.

“If you can get the education out there, maybe we can stop people from wanting the drugs so there’s nobody to sell them to,” Chrestenson said. “That’s a pipe dream.”

Sometimes it just takes someone believing in an addict for them to make the change.

“Will we be disappointed in some cases? Of course we will,” Chrestenson said. “Will we save some other people, and will they be able to pass that knowledge on to other people behind them? I think they can.”

“No, it ain’t hopeless. There’s a ton of hope, man,” Bessette told NBC Montana. “All I have is hope.”

The hope is to move the conversations from law enforcement offices to your dinner table, so together we can all put an end to this damaging, costly and deadly cycle. Doing so, may just save some lives and families like Bessette’s.

If you’re an addict or know someone who is, Bessette says the first step can simply be an internet search for help or recovery meetings. Click here for a list of all the Narcotics Anonymous meetings in Montana.

Montana’s Drug Superhighway: One woman’s journey to recovery after meth addiction

BILLINGS- Meth is often referred to by law enforcement and addicts as the devil’s drug.

Montana law enforcement with years of experience and training in the drug trade have seen people get into selling drugs because they need the money.

But for many, the addiction just simply takes hold.

“Some people enjoy how it makes them feel,” said Lt Brandon Wooley with the Billings Police Department. “And they will tell you that meth is the devil’s drug and it’s taken everything from them.”

Billings resident Mandy Nunes got into drugs because it was something to do when she was a young girl, living in a small Montana town.

“It started with drinking and smoking weed when I was about 13,” said Nunes.

Born in Columbus, Nunes moved away from Montana when she was young, only to come back to eastern Montana.

“For me, it started the way it starts for a lot of people,” she said. “I was living in Glendive. There wasn’t a lot to do there at that point in time.”

She started with drinking and smoking weed, which she says she thought was pretty normal.

“That is what I grew up seeing,” said Nunes. “My mom is recovering herself.”

She says she grew up in a house where there was drug use, and alcohol use was pretty normal. The majority of the people she knew, her friends and family also used.

“I just thought that was what everybody did,” he said.

But things changed for her by the time she turned 14 and moved to Billings. That’s when Nunes tried meth for the first time.

“So I was 14 when I did my first line, and it was not an addicted thing back then. I didn’t need it,” she said. “I remember being so messed up that it scared me, but then I lived through it and was fine the next day, and then that became, the feeling that you are trying to get.”

Mandy’s addiction

By the time she turned 20, she said it became an addiction.

“That was when it switched over and it wasn’t just a party thing,” said Nunes. “It was, everything else suffered because of it.”

Nunes spent many precious years of her life addicted to meth and found that the drug wasn’t as available as she once had known it to be. The drug took hold, and everything else suffered.

She was doing meth before school and after, just to stay up all night, and then to stay up for work the next day.

“And then pretty soon you aren’t going to work,” said Nunes. “And then you have to steal to support your habit.”

So soon, she was in and out of jail, court and psychiatric care.

In 2003, Nunes had a baby boy and ended up marrying her son’s father. She says for a while, things were good. But then she found herself become dependent on opioids, and she and her husband at the time drank a lot and fought even more.

“My daughter went to go live with her dad in Glendive, and my son ended up with my in-laws because I knew that he would be happy and safe and loved and he has been,” she said.

She says she tried to stay clean. She tried drug court.

“I just couldn’t stay clean,” she said.

Finally, a defining moment in her addiction.

“I ended up sitting my county time out in jail. And two weeks before I was set to get out, my husband fell off the rims and died,” she said.

At one point, all she had left was the drug.

“I just couldn’t stand to feel anything,” she said. “There was just so much loss and shame and fear and regret that here comes a point when all the drugs in the world don’t numb it anymore.”

Taking control back

As the impacts of meth grow in Montana communities, local state and federal partners are actively finding ways to take control of the situation.

Project Safe Neighborhoods is a federal initiative that brings together local and tribal law enforcement, prosecutors and community leaders to help fight violent crimes.

In Yellowstone County, through Project Safe Neighborhoods 124 people have been charged federally since November 2018. Authorities have seized 346 pounds of meth with a street value of $15.6 million. Also, 96 firearms have been taken off the streets.

“We have seen an increase in drug prosecutions,” said U.S Attorney for the District of Montana Kurt Alme.

Alme serves as Montana’s chief federal law enforcement officer. So when a drug case comes across his desk, the penalties are stiff.

“Statewide the number of drug prosecutions that we have had go through this office have increased by 33 percent,” said Alme. “We are seeing some large drug-trafficking organizations and some with fairly direct links to cartels.”

Alme has locked up key members of Mexican drug cartels caught distributing and selling their product in Montana, with the help of Montana’s drug task force officers and the Montana Highway Patrol criminal interdiction team.

“It’s appropriate for us to prosecute those individuals in federal court so that they can get an appropriate sentence in bureau prisons and we can protect the public from these individuals,” said Alme.

The changing moment

For Nunes, a point in her life arrived that she refers to as her “changing moment.” It’s the time when addiction shifted and recovery started.

“I knew there was nothing left in that life for me but a prison sentence or a casket,” she said. “I knew that I had to do something different.”

Roughly four years ago, she said, she was basically homeless and spending time with another addict whom she barely knew, sleeping in either a motel or in a car, high on meth most of the time.

There was a warrant out for her arrest, and when they stopped at a motel, the police rolled and that was the last time she was taken to the Yellowstone County Detention Facility.

“It was the only time that I had ever been arrested when it was like a relief. It was like, I don’t have to do this anymore,” she said.

For nine months, she detoxed and then chose to change.

“Once the fog lifted a little and I wasn’t super ill, I didn’t have anybody call. I didn’t call anybody when I got to jail, not my mom, not nobody,” she said. “And it really hit me that I had sacrificed every relationship I had ever had with another human being for drugs.”

Her life now is completely different.

“I’ve gotten married to another person in recovery who’s good and treats me well. I have a house, I pay rent, it’s paid on time, it’s usually early,” she said. “I have a car, I have insurance, like all of these things that to most people are super normal. I didn’t do any of that stuff in active addiction. I was homeless a lot.”

Still, her recovery is never ending so she takes what she knows about addiction and puts it to use at Rimrock Foundation in Billings. Nunes now works as a Rehabilitation Technician Supervisor helping others through the painful effects of addiction to meth and other substances.

She provides structure and life skills, everything she herself also had to learn. But she also realizes the path to recovery is a different journey for everyone.

“I am just lucky to have reached that moment,” she said. “When the pain and fear of change, because less than the pain and fear of staying the same people, become ready. But until that happens, they do what they know, what they are used to.”

Montana’s Drug Superhighway: How traffickers conceal carloads of drugs from police

BILLINGS- Methamphetamine is the second most common illegal drug being distributed in large quantities into Montana, with marijuana being the first. It comes by way of the interstate system and directly from Mexican drug cartels.

“They are making it in super labs,” said Lt. Brandon Wooley with the Billings Police Department.

“So you are getting high purities 98 pecent, 99 percent pure meth,” he said.

Montana communities are seeing the impacts of the drug trade first-hand, leaving local law enforcement left to deal with an increase in crimes associated with meth.

It’s something the city of Billings and law enforcement know all too well.

Violent crimes across the state of Montana have increased 34 percent from 2010 to 2016, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In Billings alone, violent meth-driven crimes have increased by 75 percent from 2010 to 2017, according to the Billings Police Department.

The Eastern Montana High-Intensity Drug Task Force

For over two years, Wooley served as commander of the Eastern Montana High-Intensity Drug Task Force, or HIDTA, working undercover and in sometimes less than ideal conditions, to gain information that could dismantle and take down drug organizations coming into Montana.

Today, he’s moved on from that position and is able to speak candidly and openly about the drug scene in Billings.

“We’ve done search warrants in literally every neighborhood in this community. In neighborhoods that you would go and see a couple of million-dollar homes, and here we are executing search warrants related to drug trafficking in these neighborhoods,” said Wooley.

Billings serves as the host agency for HIDTA ,but it’s a multi-jurisdictional task force composed of local officers from city, county and federal organizations such as the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Homeland Security. The task force is federally funded through grants from the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

In 2017, the drug task force kicked into high gear with over 56 pounds of meth and $300,000 in bulk cash seized off the streets.

“Just this year alone, to date, there are over 120 pounds of meth and over $600,000 in bulk cash seizures,” said Wooley.

Montana’s drug scene

The drug scene in Montana has significantly changed. Years ago, meth was manufactured in homes but state laws cracked down on homegrown labs and awareness about the drug was highly publicized with the Montana Meth Project.

“The old way, was you go to WalMart and get everything you need,” said Wooley. “The chemical compounds that they make and that they use south of the border are still very similar but maybe a little bit more sophisticated.”

Now the supply comes directly from Mexico and drug cartels who see an increasing demand for meth in northern states like Montana.

“The best way to think of the drug problem and after my years over at the task force, it really is pretty simple and it’s based off of a business model. It’s supply and demand,” said Wooley.

“On the demand side, you have the addicts, the drive, the desire or the need for the drug. On the supply side, you have the manufacturing and then you have the distribution hubs. You have the traffickers to get it to place,” he said. “And then you have more distribution at the local levels. Then the infrastructure to get that from point A to point B is much like a trucking company, you have to have staff, bosses, you have to have managers.”

In Billings, drug seizures exceed any other city in Montana.

“Our geographical location,” said Wooley. “Billings has always had a pretty healthy appetite for meth.”

But as the Eastern Montana Drug Task force makes progress in taking down drug operations, Wooley said law enforcement is still seeing an increase.

New hiding places

Traffickers have gotten incredibly creative in finding new ways to avert law enforcement and drug-sniffing K-9s by retrofitting drug cars. Wooley revealed to MTN, the way traffickers do it, by creating closed-off compartments in an ordinary vehicle, as a way to hide drugs.

At a Billings towing yard, he points out what looks like an ordinary passenger car, except that’s it not.

“During a search, our guys are looking for anomalies, things that are unusual,” he said. “The first thing that kind of popped out in this situation was a trunk release switch underneath the seat padding, that’s not normally there.”

Wooley unveils a yellow button tucked under the driver’s side seat.

He says that trafficker has started to manufacture a combination of multiple switches only activated in sequence to trigger a drug compartment to open.

In this same vehicle, a drug trafficker would press that yellow driver’s side seat switch, followed by a variety of other knob turns or switches such as a heater gauge or windshield wiper to get the secret drug compartment to open.

“If this vehicle was pulled over and there is a roadside search, if an officer is going through quickly, not taking his time, he would probably likely miss this,” said Wooley.

The drugs were then hidden in the cavity of the car under the seats, extending from the dash all the way to the trunk, enough room to get several pounds of drugs hidden and transported for miles.

“It’s pretty crude really,” said Wooley.

Task force officers are also learning that vehicles with aftermarket switches and compartments are also being used to cross the border into Mexico and come back up to Montana, likely several times.

Billings’ violent drug-driven crimes

Wooley said law enforcement is seeing actual Mexican drug cartel presence in communities like Billings, because the distribution pipeline has shortened, cutting out a middle man and allowing for more profits for distributors.

However, along with that, comes the crime.

“I do think that our problem here in Billings is much worse,” said Wooley. “I mean look at all of our violent crimes. Most of our homicides are methamphetamine-related, the majority of our officer-involved shootings are methamphetamine related.”

And Wooley says the drugs are not immune to any one area or a specific type of person, changing much about what the ordinary person believes to be true about meth.

“We’ve done cases on people from all walks of life that have been former politicians, lawyers, doctors you name it, all the way down to somebody that hasn’t graduated school,” he said.

Montana’s law enforcement and specifically Billings police know they have their work cut out for them in terms of the meth epidemic. Still, Wooley believes you can’t attack the problem from one side.

“We aren’t going to arrest our way out of the problem, but at the same time we have got to realize some of law enforcement’s limitations,” he said. “The community needs to obviously have some more resources and we need to come at it at a few different angles.”

Looking ahead

In the next part of this series, MTN takes an in-depth look at why so many people get addicted to meth in the first place, talking to a woman who for many years, was addicted to meth, who sheds light on the how controlling the drug is.

Montana’s Drug Superhighway: Troopers form specialized team to stop interstate drug loads

BILLINGS- You might call the interstate system a lifeline for Montana.

From west to east, Interstate 90 pumps millions of dollars of commerce into the state, and Montanans travel it for business and pleasure. But in term of the drug trade, this major arterial road also leaves Montana exposed.

“There is a significant drug problem in Montana,” said Sgt. Jim Sanderson of the Montana Highway Patrol. “We know that most all meth comes from Mexico.”

Sanderson said meth, heroin, and marijuana are some of the most common drugs coming into Montana by way of the highways, directly from Mexican drug cartels. He says over the years, it’s become a trafficking epidemic that’s forcing law enforcement to pay attention in ways they never have before.

On the interstate, the Montana Highway Patrol acts as the first line of defense in the fight against Montana’s meth epidemic. Because that’s where traffickers are driving the drugs in.

The criminal interdiction team

“So we are focusing on I-90, I-94 and I-15,” said Sanderson, who heads up the Montana Highway Patrol criminal interdiction team.

In 2017, the Montana Legislature funded the criminal interdiction team. It’s a group of six full-time troopers with specialized narcotics training who conduct high volumes of traffic stops looking for criminal activity.

“It was successful well beyond what we felt it would be,” said Sanderson. “To put it in scope, the teams themselves- and this is six team members- seized just over 57 pounds of meth within the first year.”

A pound of meth in Montana is significant, according to Sanderson, because a standard user might use a tenth or a quarter of a gram, meaning traffickers are gaining a significant profit off the demand for it.

“We have seized vehicles that we believe came directly out of Mexico,” said Sanderson.

And they have.

Most recently, the Montana Highway Patrol interdiction team announced details from a major drug seizure in eastern Montana, in a massive drug case was being investigated and adjudicated for two years.

The bust happened in 2017 in Custer County, which was one of the largest seizures in Montana history, according to the Department of Justice. On Nov. 8, 2017, the interdiction team stopped a Nissan passenger car. A trooper and K-9 determined there were drugs in the car and through the course of the traffic stop, 29 pounds of meth and six pounds of marijuana were pulled off the streets. Troopers discovered the car was en route to North Dakota from California.

While that case was a large one for the criminal interdiction team, Sanderson said many times troopers are working with local drug task force officers to pin down traffickers and pull them over with large loads and sometimes small ones.

“Even if we can’t put a bunch of small cases together or completely identify an entire group, we can at the very least hurt them where it hurts the most, and that’s by taking their product off the road,” he said.

What is the drug route?

Drugs are transported in cars, on bus lines and even in the U.S. mail system.

Meth is ordered from a supplier in Montana from a drug cartel out of Mexico, and then the distribution begins. The product is then most often driven through a border crossing and into a southern state.

Sanderson said the distribution usually goes one of two ways. The first is usually from Arizona to Salt Lake City or Denver, then directly to Montana’s eastern side into Billings. Or from California along the west coast through Seattle, the Tri-Cities, Spokane and along Interstate 90 through Montana where the distribution often either ends, heads farther east or goes north to Canada.

“Drugs are coming into Montana. It’s coming from all over the place,” said Sanderson.

So, he said, the interdiction team stations themselves on both the western and eastern sides of the state, patrolling and working with local officers to stop a load in its tracks.

“So we can conduct targeted enforcement based off of information that they can provide us that they are drumming up through days, weeks, months, sometimes years of investigative work from the ground up,” said Sanderson. “And then we can capitalize on that information and take down a significant load of drugs.”

While the interdiction team is making tangible progress in their work, Sanderson said they plan to expand with more officers in the coming months and take more drugs off the streets.

One day at a time

On a brisk fall day, Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Darvin Mees sets out on shift. He starts by checking speeds on Interstate 90 from Laurel to Lockwood.

“My responsibilities are those of any other trooper out here. Crashes, complaints, DUIs,” he said.

He’s been a trooper with the patrol for 18 years in the Billings area and is a supplement of the criminal interdiction team because of his canine partner.

“In addition though, I have this tool that is used for drug interdiction,” he said.

Mees works with Saar, a drug tracking K-9.

At this point, the criminal interdiction team doesn’t use K-9 officers, so Mees is often called upon to join in on a traffic stop where drugs are suspected in the car.

“You’ll notice that she will really get fired up,” Mees says.

His relationship with Saar is like many K-9 handlers. They bond with a game of ball or fetch. During a shift, they work. Unlike some police dogs, Saar is vocal, something Mees enjoys. When Mees switches on his police lights to engage in a traffic stop or speeds up his patrol cruiser, Saar gets up from her backseat compartment and starts barking. She gets excited, said Mees.

“In her mind, she is always hoping that she is going to get out and do a little bit of work.”

This year alone, the duo made over 60 drug seizures. And on just an ordinary Wednesday, Mees is about to do one more. A mere two hours into his shift, Mees spots a car in Billings with a shattered windshield, so he opts to pull the vehicle over because of an obstructed view.

The vehicle ends up pulling over in the Motel 6 parking lot in Billings and not long after its stopped, another unmarked Montana Highway Patrol car arrives as well as an officer from the Billings Police Department.

It only took a quick glance in the windows, and Mees notices drug paraphernalia is scattered throughout this car.

“There were some needles, some Q-tips and cotton balls, filters, foil with burn marks, lots of foil, brand new foil,” he said. “There is a couple of scales in there, I didn’t find a bunch of new bags, but there were two bags with heroin.”

Inside the car, Mees and the other officers found seven grams of meth, a small baggie of heroin, something that is referred to on the streets as chocolate.

The drugs are likely from a Mexican drug cartel and sent to Montana to be distributed to low-level dealers, according to Mees.

Mees was told there was an altercation at this same location, with the same group of people just hours before.

Officers had recognized this car before with evidence tape still stuck the vehicle. With obvious drug paraphernalia in the car and signs of intention to distribute, one male occupant was arrested for warrants, but the other two were not.

In this case, as many Montana law enforcement officers face, Mees was forced with a tough decision on this day. He was informed earlier in his shift that the Yellowstone County jail was full, only violent offenders allowed, which means the drugs are seized and the occupants go free.

“The next best thing is to get them a court date, get them in front of a judge at some point in the near future,” said Mees. “It’s not something that just takes place in the shadows you know in our community, its something that’s going on any hour of the day really.”

Next, the drugs are admitted into evidence to built a case from and at least, the drugs are taken off the streets said, Mees.

The drug impact

“All you have to do is really take a look around, and you’ll be able to see how that is affecting your community,” said Sanderson.

But the solution has to be a collaborative effort, according to Sanderson.

“We completely understand that we are unable effectively combat drug abuse and substance abuse in Montana. That is a collective effort, but we are doing what we can on our part on the road,” said Sanderson.

Looking ahead

In the second edition of this series, MTN News takes a deeper look into how local drug task forces are seeing first hand the special ways traffickers are trying to avert law enforcement. Those who specialize in investigating drug operations talk about how the meth epidemic has also plagued the city of Billings with violent crimes.

Meth epidemic overwhelms Montana

MISSOULA, Mont. — In one of western Montana’s most beautiful valleys, you can also find an ugly, growing problem.

“I didn’t care for anything that made me sleepy or slow,” said St. Ignatius resident Karen Tromp. “I was all about going fast. I was a functional user all the way to jail in Lake County. But that doesn’t make it right.”

Tromp quit using methamphetamine 18 months ago, after 45 years of drug addiction.

“Back in the day, which was a while ago, there wasn’t such a thing as what they call methamphetamine,” Tromp told us. “The first drugs I used that led to my addiction is whites. Little white pills the truckers used to take. From there it went to meth or crank. It’s all related, it just comes in different forms.”

The first time everything came crashing down for Tromp was in Arizona.

“I went to prison. At that time good behavior got you everywhere, and jumping through the hoops was easy for me,” Tromp said. “I did a five-year sentence in seven months. And that was the first time my using and all that had ever affected my family. My kids were young. After that I stayed clean for probably about a year and a half.”

Tromp started using again and hit bottom in 2017, when she was arrested again for meth.

“I almost went crazy. I couldn’t breathe. It was the most devastating thing, and it wasn’t like I’d never been to jail before. It’d been so long ago. At my age and what I have to lose, that’s what I was doing. I prayed. I prayed that if you can possibly let me do something to get out of this, I promise I’ll never ever use again, and I meant it wholeheartedly.”

Tromp is not alone. The statistics are alarming. One study says meth accounted for 86 percent of the drugs trafficked in Montana in the past five years. From January to June of 2018, the state health department says 72 percent of child abuse cases in Missoula were drug related, and 81 percent of those involved meth.

“Real-life stories are things of nightmares,” Montana Attorney General Tim Fox said at a press conference earlier this year. “Montana is in the midst of a substance abuse crisis. We see it all around us every day, rising crime rates, the deaths of our friends and loved ones.”

We see it in one story after another. Some of the most heartbreaking are when children are involved. The National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being conducted a study that focused on little boys. It showed if they experienced six or more instances of abuse or trauma, they’re over 4,000 percent more likely to use drugs as adults. And the cycle continues.

You can see the impact of drugs in so many of the stories we cover at NBC Montana, many of them bringing us to tears. So how do we break this cycle?

The Montana Meth Project focuses solely on this question. You probably remember their shocking ad campaigns a few years ago. You won’t see them on the air anymore. Instead, they’re targeting a younger audience on mobile platforms.

“We need to find new ways and new people coming forward and sharing their personal accounts,” said Amy Rue, the director of the Montana Meth Project. “The more we can stir these authentic conversations about where meth will take you and where people have ended up and what they’ve lost and what they’ve traded.”

Two new statewide initiatives also aim for prevention and treatment, not just jail time.

“There’s a societal bias, and there has been for some time, that an individual with a substance abuse disorder is for some reason a second class citizen that isn’t worthy of our love and support and resources,” Fox said when announcing a new initiative. “I know everyone standing behind me doesn’t believe that. They believe firmly that there’s value in every human life.”

Fox says drug abuse affects every single person in Montana, either through personal stories or indirectly through taxpayer dollars. If that doesn’t get you, how about this? Most of us are exposed to small amounts of meth on a daily basis.

NBC Montana did a story earlier this year when we tested cash from different people at our station. Tests came back so hot the cash would have needed abatement if it were part of a wall.

Drug courts are helping put people through treatment instead of just jail time. That’s what pulled Tromp up from rock bottom. She is the first graduate of Lake County’s drug court. But it wasn’t easy.

“I was going to lose my house; I was going to lose my 10 horses; I was going to lose everything. My life was over. And then it was not easy. I had something to do with that program Monday through Friday. It was a full-time job, actually, just doing what they required,” she said.

But drug courts aren’t a magic wand that can fix everything at once, and they can only serve so many people at a time.

Law enforcement officers want the public to change the way it views meth, not just as a statistic, but real people.

One Montana sheriff broke it down in a Facebook post recently when he said a bust of 107 doses means 107 very real possibilities of domestic violence, assault, child abuse or other violent offenses.

“This drug will take anybody,” Rue said.

“There’s no age,” Tromp says. “Believe me. I’ve been around the circle long enough there are a lot more my age that are still using.”

And everyone we talked to seems to agree it will take a village to combat a problem that seems as big and formidable as the mountains that scrape against Montana’s big sky.