MISSOULIAN EDITORIAL: Montana must fight meth rise

September 04, 2016 - Missoulian

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.

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