Justice-Requested Meth User Report Removed From Website

April 25, 2021

KALISPELL, Mont. (AP) — A needs assessment that was completed late last year by the Montana Department of Justice, but has yet to be made public, provides insight into the state’s battle with methamphetamine from the perspectives of 99 former users.

The primary goal of the project, formally titled “Methamphetamine Use in Montana,” was to learn more about “precursors to initiation and course of methamphetamine disorders among users,” the report states. A secondary focus was to better understand users’ experiences with the justice and child welfare systems, successful and unsuccessful treatment and pathways to recovery.

The assessment comes roughly two years after the justice department noted the number of annual methamphetamine-related deaths in Montana more than doubled between 2009 to 2014 and 2015 to 2018 — a trend experts say isn’t going away.

According to the final report, 39 women and 60 men with a “diverse range of experiences and identities” participated in the voluntary project. Interviews were conducted from May to September of 2020 and included a series of open-ended questions related to their personal experiences, opinions and beliefs surrounding meth use, interactions with various systems and the social circumstances associated with their substance use.

The identities of the participants — most of whom were in their initial stages of recovery when they were interviewed — were kept confidential. In addition, the 61-page report states participants may have “accidentally or purposefully over or under reported their experiences or may misremember certain experiences due to the amount of time that has passed since the event.”

Findings in the report, which was commissioned by former Attorney General Tim Fox, align with what various experts and other reports have said about the state’s meth crisis for years now.

As just one example, most participants said they first tried meth as adolescents, with approximately half initiating their use between the ages of 10 and 16 and less than a quarter of participants having tried it for the first time after the age of 25. Many said their meth use began only after a period of regularly using other substances, including opioids, cocaine, marijuana or alcohol.

Several participants shared that meth was “normal” in their family or within their community and that their initiation into meth use was a by-product of being around the drug and it being normalized in the environment.

“Well, I mean it’s been around most of my life, so I guess there was pressure all the time. You know what I mean? I just didn’t give into it,” said one interviewee who added that they eventually tried meth around the age of 13.

“These participants reported using methamphetamine in response to a recent traumatic event, such as the loss of a parent or child, or in response to childhood trauma, including sexual assault or physical abuse,” the report states, adding that many participants noted their drug addictions often came hand-in-hand with mental health issues.

Other key findings include the following: roughly 75% of participants eventually turned to selling the meth to pay for their habits, their addictions prompted them to commit other crimes such as stealing, nearly all participants experienced violence during their times using and selling, about 50% of participants said they went through treatment at least three times, a large number of interviewees felt strongly that 30 to 60-day treatment programs are not long enough and many participants said drug treatment court was a positive experience and a catalyst for recovery.

A large portion of the report delves into how meth in Montana has had negative effects on the state’s child and welfare and justice systems. It states that meth was listed as the primary drug in 65% of child removals in 2019, and that the number of methamphetamine-related crimes increased statewide by 100% from 2014 to 2108, while all other drug crimes increased only 9%.

Locally, Flathead County Sheriff Brian Heino said while it would be difficult to distinguish how many crimes have occurred as a result of someone being high on meth, he did say the department has experienced an uptick in drug-related activity.

The Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, according to data provided by Heino, made around 80 narcotic-related arrests in 2020 alone. The department also worked on nearly 400 drug-related cases that year, with approximately 50% of those involving methamphetamine.

Also in 2020, the department and partners seized and/or collected through various means approximately $1.6 million worth of drugs throughout the valley. That includes more than 27,000 grams (60 pounds) of meth, which the department estimates has a street value of more than $500,000. And in 2021 alone, the department has already removed nearly 1,000 grams (2.2 pounds) of methamphetamine, valued at more than $33,000.

Heino also said the cost of meth has been rising due to various factors, including periodic decreases in production. That price increase leads some users to try slightly cheaper substances such as heroin or cocaine — a ripple effect that has contributed to drug task forces in the area needing more resources.

The sheriff’s department is part of the Northwest Montana Drug Task Force, which consists of partners in Lake and Lincoln counties, as well as law enforcement in Whitefish and Kalispell.

According to Heino, the group received more than $140,000 in federal grants for calendar year 2021 and another $160,000 from the Montana Board of Crime Control for fiscal year 2021. Heino elaborated on the importance of such funding in a May 2020 letter in which he had requested another round of grant funding from the crime control board.

“The funds provided by the Montana Board of Crime Control are essential to the staffing of our task force. These grant funds specifically pay a portion of wages for seven officers from four different agencies,” Heino wrote. “This funding is instrumental in drug investigations for Northwest Montana. Reductions of drug operations and the loss of funding would reduce or eliminate many operations in northwest Montana, causing possible increases in violent crime and drug-involved incidents.”

While the report underscores the important role law enforcement personnel play in addressing Montana’s meth crisis, it also illustrates how that onus does not fall to one stakeholder and will require extensive cooperation among mental health providers, treatment program leaders, elected officials and others.

The authors of the report wrote in their summary that they hope the document can inform policy action and serve as a catalyst for future research on methamphetamine use disorders, treatment and recovery in the state. But whether the assessment will be made public so that stakeholders can consider the information, is unclear.

The assessment was completed in December, one month before Attorney General Austin Knudsen took over for Tim Fox, who commissioned the report. The previous administration had posted the report on the Department of Justice’s website and had issued a press release on the matter, but according to a former justice department employee, Knudsen’s administration has since taken it down.

Prior to Knudsen taking over, the justice department sent the report to several news outlets, including the Daily Inter Lake. It was also shared with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, the Montana U.S. Attorney’s office, Gov. Greg Gianforte’s transition staff, and to multiple other interested parties.

Kyler Nerison, a spokesperson for the Office of Attorney General, did not answer questions from the Daily Inter Lake on whether Knudsen has seen the report or if he plans on making it public. He also did not say whether Knudsen, who during his campaign for attorney general talked at length about funding programs that help law enforcement tackle drugs and violent crime, necessarily agrees with its contents.

During one phone call, Nerison said “some things get lost during transitions between administrations.” But he recently offered a separate statement via email.

“The meth epidemic is the biggest public safety issue facing Montana today. Attorney General Knudsen is focused on cutting off the supply of meth and heroin that Mexican drug cartels are trafficking into our state and working to move more resources that have been stuck in Helena out into the hands of local law enforcement,” Nerison wrote. “Addressing behavioral health issues will be needed to reduce the demand for illegal drugs, but providing those services is not the role of the Department of Justice. I question the value taxpayers received from the previous administration spending $50,000 to interview 99 meth users.”

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