Overcoming addiction crisis in Montana takes effort on all levels

February 19, 2019 - NBC Montana

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.

Back to News