Meth epidemic overwhelms Montana

November 18, 2018 - NBC 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.

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