Meth series: ‘There’s a snake on me. I can feel it pressing down on me’

The 25-year-old man stood on the railroad tracks in the pitch dark of an August night, begging police officers to rescue him from an attacking snake.

The call to police dispatch in Uptown Butte came in around 3 a.m. Officers Rich O’Brien and Jim Duddy responded to the railroad crossing on Kaw Avenue and found the man wearing a hoodie with the hood pulled over his head and a look of terror on his face.

O’Brien would later confirm the man’s “hallucinations” stemmed from methamphetamine use. He had dealt with the Butte man on prior occasions. When he’s sober, O’Brien says, he’s a “pretty good kid,” easy to talk to and always honest.

But in the early-morning hours of Aug. 10, the man seen in body-cam video rails against the National Security Agency and screams desperate cries over a snake wrapping itself around his legs and shoulders — and visible only to him.

“I don’t know what the (expletive) technology these people have, all right, but, like, they can disable my phone. They can do all sorts of crazy (expletive). There is a … snake on me. I can feel it pressing down on me. Get off!” he screams.

“I’m flipping tired,” he says, claiming his lack of sleep the past two days is due to harassment from a man who lives in his apartment building. He calls him Watermelon and talks to him in O’Brien’s body-cam video. However, the hallucinating man and the two officers are the only people at the crossing.

“You need to stop. You don’t have any dope on you, do you?” inquires O’Brien.

“No, I just want to sleep, and I don’t want to get attacked,” says the man and begins to cry. “That’s all I want, that’s all I want. I don’t want to go to the hospital.”

O’Brien assures the man he’s not taking him to St. James Healthcare. Instead, he’s being arrested, not for meth but to protect him and the residents in his building. Two days later, he was re-arrested after walking up to the second floor of the Butte Prerelease Center in Uptown and complaining of a snake crawling on him.

O’Brien’s work in corrections exposed him to youth and adults suffering from substance abuse. He recalled hearing “meth stories” from many of the inmates during his two years at the county jail.

Since joining the Butte-Silver Bow police force over four years ago, he said the city has seen a huge increase in meth use.

“I know we see a lot of it — it’s sad,” said O’Brien.

Meth series: Butte meth dealer facing life in prison has history of light sentences

It was shocking when a man was arrested in broad daylight in busy Uptown Butte this time last year by a swarm of armed police.

Also shocking was the man’s admission to police that he had trafficked over 40 pounds of meth in the community in the last six months. More shocking still was that the man had fired a gun at associates in Anaconda and Butte at least five times for offenses as slight as dropping the bong.

But most shocking is that Lester Oxendine had managed to get away with so much for so long. Oxendine’s criminal record shows a history of light sentencing, second chances, and the failure by separate court jurisdictions to take into account his probationary status in other states, even as the danger he posed to those around him escalated.

The federal charges Oxendine now faces for his crimes in Montana may put him behind bars permanently, but if he manages to avoid a harsh sentence for his felony convictions, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time.

Oxendine is 33 years old and a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, a mixed-race tribe best known for being the largest federally unrecognized Native group in America and for routing the Ku Klux Klan in the 1958 Battle of Hayes Pond.

Oxendine’s criminal history is extensive, spanning at least four states on both sides of the country and dozens of criminal charges over a decade and a half. The scope of Oxendine’s activity means there are gaps in information concerning his criminal convictions and sentencings, but from available documents, it appears Oxendine has spent little time behind bars, serving about one year in jail for 14 convicted felonies in North Carolina alone.

His first known appearance in the criminal justice system was at age 19 for bootlegging in Richmond County, North Carolina, in 2001, a misdemeanor. Over the next decade, he bounced back and forth between courts in both Carolinas on various charges.

Oxendine was arrested in South Carolina for the first time in August 2003 and charged with assault, felony malicious injury to an animal, resisting arrest, and failing to pull over for police, all from the same incident. The assault charges were dropped by the prosecutor, and Oxendine pleaded guilty to all other charges.

In September 2004, Oxendine was arrested again in South Carolina and pleaded guilty to a variety of charges, including two misdemeanor assaults, four felonies for breaking into fuel tanks, and two more bootlegging misdemeanors.

The South Carolina Department of Corrections only keeps a database of current, not former, inmates and did not respond to requests for clarification of Oxendine’s criminal sentencing history.

While the specifics of Oxendine’s sentencing in South Carolina are unclear, in 2009, he served 27 days in a North Carolina jail for two counts of misdemeanor larceny and 149 days for burning down a dwelling for fraudulent purposes.

2011 saw Oxendine sentenced on five felony forgery charges in Robeson County, North Carolina, from seven years prior, for which his probation was revoked, and he served eight months in jail.

Released in 2012, Oxendine was again convicted of multiple felonies in 2013 but would avoid jail time. Found guilty of identity theft, financial fraud, credit card theft, and motor vehicle theft, Oxendine was given a suspended sentence and placed back on probation.

Although it’s unknown when Oxendine first graduated from bootlegging to the drug trade, his first drug charges were filed by courts in the Bakken oil fields after he fled North Carolina, absconding from his probation.

With a low population density (and therefore smaller drug appetite) and great distance from the Southern border, ocean ports, and major cities, Montana and the Northern Plains are a relative backwater in the America’s drug war with Mexican cartels.

According to the National Drug Intelligence Center of the U.S. Department of Justice, Southwest Montana serves as a tertiary overland meth trafficking crossroads, sitting between the Pacific Northwest ports and the major Chicago distribution center as well as at the northern terminus of the Interstate 15 and 25 routes that bring drugs up through Salt Lake City and Denver from the narcotics epicenters of Tijuana and Juarez.

While the DOJ says most of that drug traffic is diverted to major cities before it gets close to Montana, emerging markets like the Bakken oilfield boomtowns bring occasional spikes in demand for drugs that attract out-of-state dealers.

The man camps that followed the fracking of Bakken shale oil led to a sharp increase in western North Dakota’s drug crime, with out-of-state gangs sending members to run local trafficking rings, particularly for meth.

Oxendine was first arrested in Williams County, North Dakota, in September 2014 for driving without a seat belt or a license and later in early 2015 for carrying a concealed weapon, marijuana, drug paraphernalia, tampering with evidence, and continuing to drive without a license or a seat belt.

The North Dakota courts sentenced Oxendine to a year’s probation for some of the charges, but he absconded again, this time to Butte, before all his charges progressed fully through the legal system. The light sentences Oxendine received in North Dakota suggest the courts there were unaware of his sizable criminal history in the Carolinas or his status as a probationary absconder.

Oxendine’s last criminal charge in North Dakota was in April 2015 for driving without a license. His continued failure to secure a driver’s license would be the cause of his initial arrest by Butte police in December of last year.

Silver Bow County Sheriff Ed Lester said although police had circumstantial evidence that Oxendine had been dealing meth and shooting at people for several months before his arrest, they were still waiting on a search warrant for his Centerville home when they arrested him in Uptown Butte on a traffic stop.

Lester said they didn’t want to arrest Oxendine outside his home, which they knew contained multiple firearms, and also didn’t want to provoke a hostage situation by attempting an arrest when someone else was tagging along. When the surveillance team tailing Oxendine reported he drove away from his house alone, police pulled him over Uptown, confiscating a 9mm pistol and drugs with a search warrant acquired after the K9 unit got a hit on his car.

More drugs and firearms were found in Oxendine’s home, and the man later told police in an interview that he had trafficked over 40 pounds of meth in the Butte area from Las Vegas after moving to town in July.

With his cases in Silver Bow and Deer Lodge counties transferred to federal court, Oxendine pleaded guilty in November to charges he distributed meth and used a gun to make it happen. Because Oxendine fired his weapon in furtherance of selling meth, he’s facing a potential life sentence and millions of dollars in fines. Sentencing is currently scheduled for March 2017.

Other felony drug and weapons charges were dismissed in exchange for his guilty plea. But this time around, federal prosecutors likely have enough to end Oxendine’s criminal career.

Meth series: Boulder’s Elkhorn Treatment Center: ‘Silver bullet’ for women fighting addiction

BOULDER — Amanda Brum first shot herself up with methamphetamine when she was 12.

The potent drug was her payment for a babysitting job.

“I loved it. I’m not going to lie to you,” the 33-year-old Billings woman said in July. “It was a great feeling. It took away all my pain, all my anxiety. It was what I wanted. It was what I didn’t have in my home life.”

The slender woman with gray-blue eyes and a spray of freckles across her cheeks was one of several residents at Elkhorn Treatment Center in Boulder who agreed to tell their stories of addiction — journeys filled with abuse, sex exchanged for drugs, and children left behind.

The 47-bed center located about 35 miles north of Butte is a residential treatment-based correctional facility for women under the auspices of the Montana Department of Corrections, with a small number of beds under contract to the Department of Public Health and Human Services.

Elkhorn is one of two nine-month programs created by the DOC to treat drug offenders, focusing on mental health and chemical dependency, including meth addiction. An 82-bed facility — Nexus — in Lewistown provides treatment to male offenders. Both programs regularly have months-long waiting lists.

The DOC supervises about 16,451 offenders as of Nov. 30, with 83 percent managed outside the state’s two prisons. Drug possession continues to be the top-ranked offense for both male and female offenders, according to the DOC’s 2015 Biennial Report.

A large percentage of crimes perpetrated on communities can be linked to substance abuse, according to law enforcement officials. Spikes in offenses such as property crimes are inexorably tied to the prevalence of meth use in cities, small towns, and rural outposts across Montana.


Judy Kolar, one of three licensed addiction counselors at Elkhorn, said the damage inflicted by methamphetamine use affects the “whole person.” The length of the program is significant and more effective because it provides both mental health and addiction treatment — an approach the Elkhorn team excels at.

“It’s not the kind of drug you try once. … They certainly make a choice to start, but they don’t have any idea what they’re getting themselves into,” said Kolar. “It takes a long time for their brains to clear up enough to function adequately, and it takes a long time to work through a lot of the problems they’ve created.”

Administrator Dan Krause said many of the residents have “significant trauma histories,” including physical, emotional, and sexual abuse extending as far back as childhood. Various therapeutic groups target issue areas — such as a victim impact group — and allow the women to share their experiences.

“It’s very hard-hitting for them,” he said, adding that residents will insist they’re victims of “the system” and later realize they, too, can be the bully or the one who doles out abuse.

Each resident is required to write a life story within the first 90 days after arriving at Elkhorn. Kolar said the stories resonate with trauma: broken homes, a lack of supervision, and parents caught up in drug use, something she didn’t see early in her career more than 20 years ago.

“A lot of parents are using drugs with their kids. Some are introducing kids to drugs, and they don’t always start with methamphetamine. Most of the time they don’t — usually it’s alcohol, marijuana. When they get into meth, it seems like that becomes the primary drug of choice,” she said.

Royale Ereaux of Billings first tried meth at 14. Shortly after, she starting shooting it. The high was “amazing.” She felt light, like she could do anything.

“I felt powerful. I felt like I didn’t have to worry about anything or anyone, and it just made me feel better than I was feeling,” the 32-year-old Sioux woman said in June.

Ereaux blamed her “home life” for a string of convictions for drug possession and escape in Yellowstone and Missoula counties dating to 2004. She served seven years in the Montana Women’s Prison in Billings.

In an unvarnished admission among fellow residents, Ereaux said, “My mom was an addict; she cooked meth, and I followed in her footsteps. Everything that she did (to me) I did to my son, and I kept doing it.”

Ereaux described herself as ruthless when she was using drugs, and said she slept with men to feed her habit. It was heroin use that brought her to Elkhorn and where nine months — not 30 days — of treatment helped her to “dig deep” and recognize why she couldn’t shake free of addiction.

“As the DOC likes to say, Elkhorn is their silver bullet, so hopefully it really helps me this time,” she said.

Ereaux has since graduated from the facility and was discharged to the Missoula Prerelease Center.

Meth series: Sheriff Ed Lester on the changing face of meth in Butte

Butte’s recent experiences with mass quantities of cartel-grade meth reflect how national trends in the manufacture and distribution of narcotics have changed the composition of the US drug market, and local police say it’s no longer a matter of simply knocking down meth labs.

In an interview last week, Silver Bow County Sheriff Ed Lester said Southwest Montana is seeing a greater quantity of meth than it ever has before, and according to the National Drug Intelligence Center, meth in America is cheaper and stronger than ever. A DEA study comparing meth prices and potency from 2007 to 2010 found the price of a pure gram of meth dropped nearly 70 percent, from $270 to $105, while purity more than doubled from 39 to 83 percent.

Purity and quantity have continued to rise since 2010, with even a drug trade backwater like Butte seeing dealers like Lester Oxendine selling over 40 pounds of meth which DEA crime labs reported as 97 percent pure.

Oxendine said his meth came from Las Vegas, which is a leg on the northward journey the National Drug Intelligence Agency says meth takes from “super labs” in Southern California and Northwest California, principally those owned by the Sinaloa Cartel.

According to the NDIA, the increase in purity and quantity of methamphetamine is the result of highly organized cartels overtaking the smaller domestic operations that previously supplied meth in their local communities over the last decade. According to a 2011 NDIA study, small-scale meth production at the time was most prevalent in rural areas where cartels had yet to establish distribution networks.

The caveat, according to the report, was that “while small-scale domestic laboratories account for only a small portion of the U.S. supply, their emergence tends to stimulate the growth of new markets where the drug was previously unavailable.”

That matches up with Lester’s claims that even though officials are seeing more product than ever, it isn’t produced here anymore. He said the Butte area had never had many meth labs and that police haven’t even taken one down in years.

“I don’t believe we have anyone making much meth here,” Lester said, beyond the occasional crock pot or shake-and-bake cook.

Laws in America now make it difficult for domestic cooks to purchase the precursor chemicals needed for methamphetamine, but Mexican cartels have no trouble importing them in bulk from China.

Meth series: Cartels replace local labs as cheap methamphetamine floods Montana

Montana’s methamphetamine problem, once thought to be on the wane, has bounced back with a vengeance as Mexican cartels flood the state with the highly addictive, destructive drug. And at least one top drug cop says Southwest Montana is the hottest meth trouble spot in the state.

“Super labs” can produce more than 500 pounds of high-quality methamphetamine at a time and operate in Southern California and northern Mexico, where the majority of production takes place, said  Mark Long, chief of the state Department of Criminal Investigation Narcotics Bureau.

One-pot meth labs peaked in Montana in the ‘90s through early 2000, with law enforcement seeing 100 to 150 a year. The labs took a hit as federal and state laws placed restrictions on the sale of pseudoephedrine and ephedrine — ingredients used to manufacture meth.

The labs slowly ticked back up a couple of years ago, but the purity and low cost of Mexican meth will likely thwart their resurgence in the state, said Long.

The Sinaloa Cartel is the dominant Mexican cartel “basically doing business in our back yard,” said Bryan Lockerby, administrator of Montana’s Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation, adding that the footholds cartels have in the U.S. are evidence of the scope of what law enforcement is up against. The intricate smuggling methods include placing drugs in the cavities of puppies and humans, concealing crystal meth in candy, and hiding marijuana inside individual onions stored in bags on a pallet.

The drug pipeline north to Montana utilizes the Interstate 15 corridor from Los Angeles through Las Vegas and up to Salt Lake City and into the Treasure State. Meth also travels Interstate 5 to Yakima, the Tri-Cities, Seattle, and Spokane, where it meets Interstate 90, said Long.

In southwest Montana, Long said, the outlook is dismal. “That’s the hottest problem spot for meth in the state,” he said, though he added that narcotics agents in Billings would argue that, because of its larger population and being a jumping-off point to two Indian reservations and the Bakken, where drug cases increased by 55 percent in 2014-15.

Butte-Silver Bow Detective Kevin Maloughney said meth has “grown immensely” since he served eight years with the Powell County Sheriff’s Office in Deer Lodge, two of those with the Southwest Montana Drug Task Force. He recalled the drug scene in 2003 was similar to what “we’re seeing today.”

What’s changed is the enormous growth of meth and “now the purity is ridiculous — 95, 99 percent,” the Butte native said.

Maloughney said the business has also become violent, with dealers and users often either packing or having access to multiple weapons. Law enforcement is also seeing a “ridiculous” amount of money that dealers are making.

With the influx of potent meth comes an insatiable hunger for the next fix, which drives thefts, burglaries, and assaults, the detective said. As a young boy, he recalled residents leaving doors unlocked and having a rifle in a gun rack in their pickup. Now, he said, people have to secure their homes and their vehicles to prevent themselves from being victims.

Despite meth’s top rank in the state’s list of abused drugs, followed by prescription pills and marijuana, state law enforcement officials say a tsunami of heroin is coming.

“We have to prepare for it, because it’s on its way,” said Lockerby. “What we have is a bunch of rookie heroin users, and that’s what makes it dangerous.”

For an agency that’s “stretched pretty thin,” the reality of too little resources for a burgeoning drug problem means casting a wider net beyond what the upcoming Legislature could approve.

“We’re just going to have to practice triage like an emergency room and take whatever happens to be the biggest problem at the time and deal with it. … We’re just adding more and more issues here and no more resources at any level — treatment, prevention, or law enforcement,” said Long.

The agency has 112 full-time employees with 41 sworn agents, 21 of which work in narcotics and average about 500 cases a year.

Lockerby said his team manages two of seven drug task forces across Montana, focusing on local impact cases and upper level drug traffickers in an attempt to “cut the head off the snake” of what’s coming into the state. Agents are also involved in federal task forces such as the FBI and may assist in cases on tribal lands.

Butte-Silver Bow health officer Karen Sullivan said it’s difficult to quantify the health impact from methamphetamine on the city of about 34,000 without data. Some officials say it is a statewide epidemic; others believe that’s too dramatic a label to assign.

But Sullivan is calling for a multi-agency collaboration to “batten down the hatches” and find answers to a scourge that threatens the resilient and close-knit community.

“If we’re going to attack meth use on a statewide level and on a local level, it will require a huge collaborative effort of every agency that might have an impact on this, and that could include doctors,” she said. “Without a collaborative — almost a continuum of approaches — I don’t think we’re going to lick it.”

In 2015, meth becomes most common substance after alcohol in DUI blood tests

BILLINGS – For the first time, methamphetamine outpaced marijuana as the most common drug found in addition to alcohol in DUI samples sent to the state crime lab last year.

Meth has also been detected more often in other cases that the crime lab’s toxicology division handles, according to a summary report from the Montana Department of Justice’s Forensic Science Division.

“I think that’s the real take-home of this summary, is the massive increase in methamphetamine,” said Scott Larson, toxicology supervisor at the crime lab.

Alcohol remains the most prevalent substance found in DUI toxicology cases.

In 2015, alcohol was the only detected substance in 2,277 cases. There were 3,380 total DUI cases tested that year.

The lab had 294 DUI cases involving meth, and the concentration of the drug increased 123 percent. That’s up from 2011, when state toxicologists processed 73 DUI samples that were positive for meth.

Marijuana used to be the most common substance after alcohol found in DUI blood tests. In 2015, meth became more common in DUI blood tests, according to the lab.

The toxicology section of the state crime lab in Missoula also does postmortem drug screens for medical examiners and analyzes drug and alcohol tests for cases that involve drug-endangered children. The lab also analyzes urine tests for the Department of Corrections — inmates and those on probation.

The lab tests for a range of different drugs — like marijuana, prescription narcotics, hallucinogens and inhalants. The overall number of positive drug findings has decreased over the years.

DUIs make up the largest caseload, accounting for more than half of the 6,139 cases handled last year. In the majority of DUI tests, alcohol is the only substance present in the blood sample.

But meth has increased in other test areas. They include postmortem drug screens, where the lab had 20 positive cases for meth in 2011. That jumped to 73 in 2015, though the lab handled 801 total cases.

Urinalysis tests conducted on probationers and parolees have turned up more meth as well. No other drug has spiked in the same way.

Chris Evans, deputy chief for the Billings region of Montana Probation and Parole, said that there was certainly an increase in violations for meth use since 2011. He said that when officers spoke to the offenders, they heard it was often an easy drug to get.

“The availability of methamphetamine during that time was a lot greater,” he said. “There was just more of it around.”

Of the 1,192 urinalysis cases handled by the lab in 2015, more than 550 turned up positive for meth. There were fewer than 200 in 2011.

In DUI, urine and postmortem samples, meth was the only drug other than alcohol that has steadily become more common.

Other institutions, including the court system, have seen the effects of increased meth use. A February report by The Gazette found that the number of felony drug possession charges in Yellowstone County has significantly increased over the years. Most of them involved meth.

Other findings

The report also tallied tests from traffic fatalities. In more than a third of fatal crashes cases in 2015, no drugs or alcohol were found in the victims.

Website Offers an Interactive Trip Through Meth’s Ugly Realities

The Montana Meth Project has never been known for subtlety. When the nonprofit group formed more than a decade ago to combat the state’s epidemic of methamphetamine use, it committed to a brutally truthful messaging campaign designed to evoke fear and disgust about this drug addiction.

These two emotions, research confirmed, encourage “distancing behavior” among teens. And that’s exactly what the group was going for — something that would convince young people the highly addictive drug should never be touched, “not even once,” as its slogan urges.

Over the years, there have been attention-getting billboards, TV and online ads, social media, art and video contests, community outreach, public service projects from Oscar-winning filmmakers and much more, all bringing home the disturbing physical, psychological and societal toll of meth addiction. The frankness has lifted eyebrows at times, but it has also opened eyes, helping to contribute to a 63% decline in teen meth use in Montana since 2005.

Getting Answers About Meth

This same no-holds-barred formula is also put to powerful effect in the group’s central educational resource,, a website that uses interactive graphics and a variety of media to take visitors on a tour of everything they risk from using the drug. It’s a must-see site for anyone who has ever felt even the slightest curiosity about using meth or for those who may have started down that path without fully understanding where it leads.

The site came about, explained Amy Rue, executive director of the Montana Meth Project, “because the majority of teens are getting their information online, but there didn’t seem to be a comprehensive, credible source of information about meth for them.” brought together volumes of scientific research from partners that include the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Harvard Medical School, the Mayo Clinic and many others. The result is “a definitive source that allows teens to gain an in-depth understanding of meth in an engaging, memorable and interactive way,” Rue said. “I don’t think there’s anything else like it.”

Consider the “Get Answers” section of the website. Click on “What is meth-induced psychosis?” and you’re able to shine a virtual flashlight around an eerily dark room, uncovering everything that meth psychosis entails — namely, delusions, paranoia, seeing and hearing things, hyperactivity and aggression.

Or if you want to know how meth affects your looks, you can try to pair up before and after mugshots of real meth users, or witness the step-by-step decay of “meth mouth.”

You can also hear 17-year-old “Ashley,” who started meth use at 13, narrate a video that illustrates what “crank bugs” are and why meth addicts sometimes find themselves trying to cut out or claw these imaginary insects from beneath their skin.

There’s also an inside look at what meth does to the brain. Click on the region related to “obsessive behavior,” for example, and you’ll learn that meth disrupts the brain’s brakes — its inhibitory control — and that can cause the user to repeat the same task for hours, over and over. And under “Does meth affect your heart?”, a normally beating heart can be taken into a meth-induced heart attack.

The section also includes the answer to what may be the most important question: what to do if someone you know is using meth. The short answer? Seektreatment without delay.

On every page of the site, Rue noted, is an ability to share the content, to tweet it, to promote it to friends. “And that comes full circle with the Meth Project’s main goal of fostering peer-to-peer authentic conversations about the risks of this drug,” she said.

The website also has a “Take Action” section for those who want to add their efforts to the meth fight. Among the resources is a meth prevention lesson plan full of facts and tools for educators who want to teach middle or high school students about meth dangers.

The website first came online in 2011 as an initiative of the Thomas and Stacey Siebel Foundation, Rue said, and has been enthusiastically received. Thomas Siebel, Rue noted, is the businessman and philanthropist who originally founded the Montana Meth Project in 2005 out of concern for what meth was doing to the region. And the prevention effort continues to grow, spreading to five other states: Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho and Wyoming.

Speaking Up About Meth

Perhaps the most powerful and poignant spot on the website is the “Speak Up” gallery, which provides a place for visitors to connect and share art, poems, videos and personal stories about what meth has done to them or someone they care about.

A visitor who identified himself as Brendan Sant offered this hard-earned advice:

“I am warning anybody who is curious about this drug, It is a complete gamble with the devil. You trade in not only your looks, your wealth, and your sense of self, you’ll never be able to live the same way again after trying this poison, the addiction seems to never end, one moment you will find yourself a week sober the next minute trying to buy some crystals and starting the nightmare all over again.”

Kaylee C shared the story of her meth-addicted mother leaving behind all those she loved:

“I am now adopted, I have been adopted for basically my whole life (I’m 16) and I have no idea where she is, how she is, or even if she is still alive. Drugs will not only affect you. I NEED people to understand this concept. Please think of your family, your future children. Think of everyone around you.”

Jeanette A. shared a harrowing personal tale, but ended with hope:

“Each and everyone of us is worth more than meth will ever allow us to be and can ever make us. Never give up.”

MISSOULIAN EDITORIAL: Montana must fight meth rise

Meth is again on the rise in Montana, and it’s threatening to overwhelm our criminal justice system.

Investigators, police and prosecutors in Missoula and across the state are seeing more methamphetamine cases involving larger amounts of the stimulant than ever before. That’s the bad news. The good news is they are largely in agreement about how to fight back against the meth problem.

It’s time we all listened to what they’re saying and started giving them the support they need to fight this rising threat to public health and safety. What’s more, cracking down on meth will help Montana make progress on a number of related fronts, from overcrowded jails to an overburdened foster care system.

According to investigators, home meth labs aren’t the problem they used to be, thanks in large part to laws limiting the purchase of certain ingredients necessary to make meth. Instead, large labs in Mexico are churning out large amounts of the drug in a highly concentrated form and smuggling it into the United States, where it is sold in larger quantities for lower prices.

The Missoula County Attorney’s Office has 62 open cases of meth possession or distribution so far this year, on track with last year’s 117 cases – and a sharp increase from 2007’s zero meth cases.

The Missoula Drug Task Force has seen a 38 percent increase in meth seizures just over the past year.

Not only that, but the sheer amounts of meth being seized have increased alarmingly – from ounces to pounds.

Clearly, the meth problem hasn’t gone away. It’s just been simmering, and now it’s boiling over.

Law enforcement agencies are having to prioritize cases in order to deal with the most dangerous first, and new meth-dealing operations pop up just as soon are others are taken down.

Meanwhile, meth is behind increases in other kinds of crime. It is, for example, impossible to separate meth from child abuse and neglect. Missoula has seen a “direct correlation,” according to the Missoula County Attorney’s Office, between the two. The Montana Department of Health and Human Services counted more than 1,000 children in foster care in 2015 who were removed because of parental meth use.

It’s a problem that the legislature needs to address with increases in funding for investigation and enforcement – and for treatment options, starting with local drug treatment courts.

As Montana District Court Judge John Larson, who was the first judge in Montana to start a drug treatment court, explained in a recent Missoulian article exposing the new meth epidemic, such courts have an impressive track record when it comes to reducing the rate of repeat offenses.

Montana law is already set up to allow those convicted of a first felony drug offense to agree to treatment in exchange for a deferred sentence. However, those who are unsuccessful in beating their addictions often are referred to chemical dependency programs with the Department of Corrections. If Missoula were able to offer local inpatient treatment programs instead, more meth users could receive addiction services while being held accountable in their home communities, without causing further disruptions in their housing, jobs and families that would only serve to drive them to meth again.

In Yellowstone County, where more than 500 people were arrested on meth charges last year, County Attorney Scott Twito is proposing a new drug intervention program to prevent repeat drug charges for accumulating while offenders are awaiting sentencing, as well as reduce the time between arrest and sentencing – thereby getting addicts into treatment sooner.

And last week, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines announced that the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services would be receiving $300,000 to help fight opioid abuse in the state. The announcement noted that the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act received overwhelming support when Congress passed it in July. The legislation allows grants to support community-wide strategies in places where opioid and meth abuse is higher than the national average – places like Montana’s Indian reservations.

At the U.S. House candidate debate in Frazier last month, U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke and his challenger, Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, both acknowledged that methamphetamine is a particular menace on Montana’s Indian reservations. It’s another encouraging sign that the problem is starting to get the kind of attention it needs.

But it needs more. Since 2005, when the Montana Meth Project first launched with the goal of reducing first-time meth use among teens, the organization has taken on the monumental task of raising public awareness. The organization made national headlines for its attention-getting advertising campaign and for a unique approach to youth involvement, with public art campaigns and school presentations that included recovering addicts. Those efforts continue, but they can’t do it alone.

Montana’s communities must recognize that meth is a problem that requires cooperation and coordination of preventive, legislative and enforcement levels at the local, state and federal levels. The magnitude of public support for these efforts should reflect the magnitude of the meth problem – and of the likely results of a sustained fight against it.

Missoula, state agencies report meth back on the rise

The Missoula County Attorney’s Office didn’t charge a single case of methamphetamine possession or distribution in 2007. Last year, there were 117 cases, with 62 open meth cases so far this year, said Jason Marks, chief deputy county attorney.

And meth seizures by the Missoula Drug Task Force are 38 percent higher than they were this time last year, according to its commander, Missoula Police Detective Sgt. Ed McLean.

“Fifteen years ago, an ounce of meth was a huge quantity. Two years ago we seized 2½ pounds in a shipment. In 2007, if someone said we would find that much at once, I would have wondered what the person telling me that was using,” McLean said.

“I think everyone agrees this is a problem that needs a lot of focus and resources put toward it,” said Marks.

Bryan Lockerby, administrator of Montana Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI), said a drug supply that 15 years ago was fueled by home meth labs in Montana slowed dramatically as laws changed to clamp down on the ability to purchase the ingredients for meth.

Now, he says the increase in cases is due to the source of the drug shifting to what he called “superlabs” in Mexico that smuggle drugs across the border and move it into and through Montana from Washington and California, bringing a combination of supply and lower prices to the state.

“In Mexico, the superlabs hire people with science and math backgrounds and have got it down to such a fine point where the meth is almost 100 percent pure and they have driven the price way down,” he said. “If you’ve seen ‘Breaking Bad,’ it’s literally like that.”

Lockerby also sits on the executive board of the multi-state Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, which coordinates local, state and federal resources to combat organized drug operations.

In 2015 Montana-based HIDTA affiliates seized a total of 134 pounds of meth, 4,700 pounds of marijuana and around 13 pounds of heroin, and built cases that dismantled 40 drug trafficking organizations operating in the state, Lockerby said.

Last year, the state handled 232 methamphetamine cases, up from 68 in 2010. Around 80 percent of DCI’s drug cases are meth-related, Lockerby said.

Lockerby and McLean said they need more funding to stay ahead of the resurgent meth problem. Currently, cases have to be “triaged,” picking which represent the biggest danger to the public and which have to be shelved, said McLean, whose drug task force includes police, sheriff’s deputies and agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and falls under Rocky Mountain HIDTA.

“There are only so many law enforcement officers in our area and only so many hours in a day,” he said. “We could triple the size of the task force and still be busy. Whenever you shut down a trafficking operation, another one just comes right up in its place.”

Lockerby said in addition to wanting more state funding for investigators, he hopes the Montana Legislature will take an “all of the above” approach to tackling the problem of meth when lawmakers convene next year.

“Enforcement is not the only answer to this. It is everyone working together,” Lockerby said. “We’re just trying to keep targeting these major drug trafficking organizations that are trying to get a foothold in the state.”

To push back against the most recent wave of meth cases, Lockerby said the state also needs to fund more treatment programs and centers as well as drug treatment courts that hold offenders accountable while trying to break their addictions.

“I think there’s been a lot of success in drug courts if you identify the right people and get to them early,” he said. “I think you can throw as much money as you want on the enforcement side but you’ll still have users and demand.”

Montana District Court Judge John Larson, who runs a drug treatment court for juveniles and another treatment court for people who also have pending child abuse or neglect issues, said meth has been a dominant drug in the caseloads. He refers to the treatment courts, which offenders can be sentenced to post-plea, as “coerced treatment.”

“The old view was you really had to want it for it to work. The new standpoint is that this type of coerced treatment works,” Larson said. “It’s big on testing, big on accountability and big on working together.”

The first judge in Montana to start a drug treatment court, Larson said his programs and other drug courts across the state have a lower rate of recidivism than Department of Corrections treatment programs. He’ll continue to make presentations to lawmakers in the hope of securing additional funding.

Decade After Epidemic, Meth Surges Again

The first time Ethan Smith used methamphetamine was a few months before his ninth birthday. A close family member was a drug dealer, and one night in 1997 the 8-year-old boy saw her using meth. Like any curious child, he asked what it was and why she was smoking it.

“Here, let me show you,” she said.

Moments later, Smith had taken his first hit of methamphetamine. It impacted him almost immediately. He became sick and the next day at school he was sent home early after throwing up. When Smith came home, the family member gave him heroin to level him out. He passed out immediately.

“It made me super paranoid and no kid should be paranoid about anything, except for maybe worrying about what their mom will say when they get their new shoes muddy,” Smith, now 27, said recently. “I never touched the stuff again until I was in my 20s.”

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, methamphetamine use was on the rise in Montana. In response, the state Legislature and federal government passed laws making it harder to get the supplies used to make meth, and five recovery homes were established around the state, including a woman’s recovery center in Kalispell. The Montana Meth Project formed to combat the epidemic, disseminating dramatic and graphic anti-drug ads on highway billboards, radio, television and in newspapers.

The efforts worked. According to the Montana Department of Justice, teen meth use dropped 44.6 percent between 2005 and 2007 and meth-related crime dropped 62 percent from 2004 to 2007. The number of workers who tested positive for meth fell 72 percent during the same time period. These declines accelerated a downward trend in meth use that had been evident since 1999, according to the Montana Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

But today, it appears the progress has slowed, as law enforcement agencies report seeing an uptick in the drug’s use not seen since the early 2000s. The Northwest Montana Drug Task Force has confiscated more methamphetamine in the first six months of 2016 than it did during all of 2015, almost all of it coming from outside the country.

“It’s exploded,” said Mark Mulcahy, commander of the drug task force, which is based in Kalispell. “We used to be excited to get an eight-ball of meth but now we’re taking it in by the pound.”

Smith says getting the drug has never been easier.

“It’s easier to get drugs than it is to get a job,” he said. “You can flip a coin and find a tweaker before it even hits the ground.”

A chemist in Germany first synthesized amphetamine in 1887, and three decades later a more potent version called methamphetamine was made in Japan. The drug, which can be taken orally, smoked, snorted or injected, increases the amount of dopamine produced in the brain, leading to an intense euphoria. However, the high is short-lived and users often take multiple doses to keep it going. Long-term methamphetamine use can result in confusion, anxiety, mood swings, paranoia, hallucinations and violent behavior. Abuse of the drug can also cause extreme weight loss and dental problems, among other health issues.

During World War II, Japan’s Kamikaze pilots were reportedly given high doses of amphetamine before suicide missions, while other soldiers also used the drug to stay alert. In the 1950s, the drug was marketed in a tablet form for weight control. The federal government outlawed the drug with the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

Law enforcement and health officials say specific drugs rise and fall in popularity over time. In the 1980s, cocaine was common, in the 1990s and early 2000s it was methamphetamine, and by the late-2000s prescription pills were the primary concern. Methamphetamine’s initial surge came with the establishment of homegrown meth labs. Flathead County District Court Judge Robert Allison remembers one year in the late-1990s when more than 40 meth lab cases came before his court.

In response to the scourge, law enforcement nationwide cracked down on meth labs, while state and federal legislators addressed the problem through laws. The Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 regulated the sale of products like ephedrine, pseudoephedrine and phenylpropanolamine. The federal legislation set limits on the quantities of regulated chemicals that people could buy and required stores to keep logbooks of the purchasers.

As meth became harder to produce, opioid abuse, including both prescription pills and heroin, began to rise across the country. Since 1999, the number of opioid overdose deaths has skyrocketed, with nearly a half-million people dying between 2000 and 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Among those addicted to pills was Ethan Smith.

Smith grew up in the Flathead Valley and as a teenager experimented with drugs, mostly marijuana and cocaine. Before high school, he was dealing drugs. The one drug Smith would not do again was methamphetamine.

Smith’s mother died when he was 17. Around the same time, he dropped out of school. Over the next few years, Smith would bounce from job to job and home to home before deciding to join the U.S. Army in 2009. Soon after enlisting, though, he injured his back. The Army prescribed him painkillers and he soon started abusing them. Smith was honorably discharged in 2013 and soon after returned to the Flathead Valley.

No longer in the military, Smith couldn’t get the painkillers he had become addicted to and started to use heroin instead. But at that time, the local heroin supply was drying up, at least temporarily. One day, Smith’s dealer told him that he couldn’t get any heroin but he did have methamphetamine.

“I said, ‘No way, I’ve been down that road before,’” Smith recalled.

But Smith’s withdrawals were intense – “I started to feel like a tin can being crushed” – and three hours later he called the dealer back. He purchased some methamphetamine and smoked it out of a light bulb. A week later, he injected it for the first time. After putting the needle down, Smith began to hallucinate and he watched the bathroom mirror melt into the drain below.

“I thought I was going to die. I thought my heart was about to explode,” he said. “But I used again the next day… and after that I was using every single day.”

To supply his habit, Smith started dealing again and even stealing from family members to get money to pay for his addiction.

“I did anything to get my hands on it,” he said. “I’d steal anything and pawn it.”

Smith was apparently one of many Montanans discovering, or rediscovering, meth. According to Bryan Lockerby, an administrator for the Montana Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation, his agency dealt with 68 cases involving methamphetamine in 2010, but by 2012 it had spiked to 143 cases statewide. In 2015, the division handled 232 meth-related cases. Lockerby said about 80 percent of all drug cases his office prosecutes now involve methamphetamine use.

Unlike the early 2000s, when much of methamphetamine was homegrown, Lockerby said most of what is coming into the state today is produced in Mexico. Flathead County is one of five federally designated High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas in Montana, which allows state and local officials to access federal funding allocated for combating drug crimes. Some of that money goes to the Northwest Montana Drug Task Force.

The task force is based out of the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office and covers six counties, including Flathead, Lincoln, Lake, Mineral, Sanders and Glacier. Mark Mulcahy has been the task force commander for three-and-a-half years, overseeing eight detectives, including undercover agents.

Every week, Mulcahy’s detectives confiscate methamphetamine, or purchase it through undercover work, to try and determine its source. A decade ago, the task force would usually confiscate a few ounces of meth at a time, but in the last few years the haul has grown significantly. In 2014, the task force took nine pounds of methamphetamine off the street. The next year, it hauled in 15 pounds worth $5 million, and so far in 2016 it has confiscated or purchased more than 20 pounds.

Mulcahy said dealers often transport methamphetamine from Washington to sell it at a higher price here – an ounce in Seattle goes for upwards of $450, but in the Flathead Valley they can make more than $1,200 for the same amount.

Increased meth use and rising prices have contributed to an increase in theft, too, Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry said.

“Being an addict is expensive and a lot of people don’t have six-figure jobs to maintain their habit, so they turn to property crime,” Curry said.

Mulcahy and his agents said they believe drug use in the Flathead Valley is more widespread than most people realize.

“My perception of drug users has changed 180 degrees since taking this assignment,” said one of the task force’s undercover agents who asked not to be named because of the job’s sensitivity. “Some of these folks are decent people who are just dealing with addiction… They’re not violent criminals.”

But that’s not always the case. According to court documents, the murder of a 35-year-old Kalispell man in the spring was related to drugs and one of the suspects, Melisa Ann Crone, allegedly had methamphetamine when she was arrested.

“The more drugs we get the more violence we could have,” Mulcahy said. “This is still a nice place to live in and we want to keep it that way.”

Some law enforcement officials believe that the valley’s methamphetamine problem is one of the reasons the county’s jail is constantly crowded. Addiction seems to be causing problems in other parts of the criminal justice system, too. Judge Allison said most of the cases he sees are drug related; even in those that aren’t, drug use is often an underlying factor.

“I think drug use is becoming a much bigger problem in this community than most people realize,” Allison said.

The spread of drug use is also having impacts on other institutions. According to the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, in 2010 there were more than 800 children in foster care statewide because of neglect stemming from parental substance abuse. By April of this year, that number had doubled to more than 1,600. According to a Great Falls Tribune story in May, of the 150 foster care cases in Cascade County this year, nearly 60 percent were tied to methamphetamine use.

While in the past some have said that more jail space and harsher punishments would reduce drug use, Flathead District Court Judge David Ortley said it’s a far more complex problem that cannot be addressed by the justice system alone.

“You cannot incarcerate addiction away,” Ortley said. “You can lock someone up and while they’re in jail or prison they may not use, but unless you change the way they think, they’ll go right back to using when they get out.”

Ortley and other judges have advocated for a more therapeutic approach, including sending those convicted of non-violent drug crimes to therapy instead of prison. Some have even suggested establishing a drug court that sentences defendants to treatment. Flathead County Commissioner Phil Mitchell said local officials have been studying the idea in recent months and he believes it could help relieve the county’s jail overcrowding problem.

“I want to find options beyond just throwing people in jail,” he said.

District Court Judge Heidi Ulbricht previously ran a municipal drug and DUI court in Kalispell. She said she plans to apply for federal funds to establish a drug court at the district level in 2017.

Michael Cummins, executive director of the Flathead Valley Chemical Dependency Clinic, said he supports the idea of a drug court because it makes treatment, not punishment, the objective. The chemical dependency clinic, established in the 1970s, offers drug evaluations and outpatient treatment, including therapy and counseling. It sees about 350 to 400 people annually.

Cummins said the clinic has seen an increase in people dealing with meth addiction in recent years. In 2013 and 2014, 11.8 percent of the clinic’s patients reported struggling with meth addiction, making it the third most abused substance after alcohol (59 percent) and marijuana (15.8 percent). But in 2015 and 2016, methamphetamine abuse climbed to 17.5 percent, making it the second most abused substance, ahead of marijuana.

But treatment isn’t an easy process and it’s not unusual for clients to relapse, Cummins said.

“Meth changes what the brain does and it can take a year of treatment and support for it to recover,” Cummins said. “You can’t just stay clean for 30 days or even six months and think you’re good. At that point, you’re just getting started.”

Cummins said the only way to address the state’s growing methamphetamine problem is to direct more resources toward education and treatment.

“(Montana’s meth) problem is far from solved,” said Amy Rue, executive director of the Montana Meth Project, which has been providing education regarding the drug’s dangers for more than a decade. “Some of the gains we made by shutting down domestic labs are being offset by an increase in meth coming from Mexico. To truly solve this problem we have to reduce the demand, and that can only be done through education.”

Eighteen years after he first smoked methamphetamine as an 8-year-old, Ethan Smith has been clean for nine months. In October 2015, after losing custody of his son and his job, he decided enough was enough. With the help of therapy, counseling and support from other recovering methamphetamine addicts, Smith said he is finally getting his life back on track, but it hasn’t been easy.

“This has been the hardest nine months of my life,” Smith said. “It’s been a living nightmare but every second that goes by for me is a lifetime record of sobriety because I haven’t been clean since I was 8-years-old.”

Smith got a job at a local auto shop and is living in a camper on his grandparents’ property. He’s working hard to get his life back in order and recently was allowed to have his son stay overnight with him. But the urge to use hasn’t gone away. When a craving hits, he usually calls a counselor or friend to talk him through it.

“When I come home to this crappy camper, I think how great it would be to crack open a beer,” he said. “But I know if I do that, it wouldn’t be long before I’m looking at a needle sticking out of my arm.”

Smith said his dream now is to stay clean, have a steady job, a family and a home. He knows that those ambitions will take time to achieve, but he’s confident he can do it, even though he knows he will always be an addict. The key is keeping the urges at bay and making the right choices.

“Life will never get easy, but if I make the right choices, it will get simpler,” he said.

Smith is especially open with friends about his past because he hopes that his story will resonate with other people who struggle with addiction.

“I want to be able to help the next Ethan Smith,” he said. “I’d rather wish death on someone than addiction, because all addiction is is a slow painful death.”