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The great state of Montana, known as "Big Sky Country," couldn't be any more majestic. Vast plains stretch like a wild, fraying carpet across the eastern region, dwarfed only by the endless expanse of sky above, and are home to impossibly huge herds of cattle and meandering buffalo. To the west lie the famously rugged Rocky Mountains, which have been the stuff of American legends, poems, and songs since the early 1800s. Unfortunately though, in modern times Montana is becoming known for something else-the scourge of opioid addiction.
Much like the rest of the United States, prescription painkiller (opioid) addiction has blown through Montana like the wildfires that threaten its mighty forests every fall. Opioids have laid waste to whole communities, decimating and disrupting families. In 2019, the sad truth is that nearly two-thirds of the placements in Montana's foster care system involve parental substance abuse.
Studies suggest that people living in more rural areas may be especially at risk to becoming hooked on opiates, and given Montana's enormous land size and relatively small population, it's no wonder that the state has been so thoroughly ravaged. An estimated 694,966 people currently live in "rural" or remote areas of Montana, and depending on what area of the state they live in, winters can be long, isolating, and ripe for depression and addiction.
In Montana, its estimated that roughly half of all drug overdose deaths involve opioids. Like the rest of the United States at large, the root of the opioid problem stems from doctors over-prescribing these highly addictive drugs when, in many cases, Tylenol, Excedrin or Advil will do. These drugs may seem safe, especially when doctors prescribe them, but just one or two of few these prescription pain pills can get people hooked and send them off on a downward spiral into the throes of full-on dependency. These drugs are stealing our family members, our sons, our daughters, and our very future. In 2018, Montana providers wrote 54.0 opioid prescriptions for every 100 persons compared to the average U.S. rate of 51.4 prescriptions!
Unfortunately, prescription painkiller abuse can often send people down far darker paths. Opioids often lead to heroin addiction, (as heroin is cheaper than the pills, and usually far easier to obtain on the street) and so predictably, the Montana heroin problem has exploded. In 2015-2016, approximately 3,000 Montanans aged 18 years and older reported having used heroin within the past year, and between 2010 and 2015, crimes in Montana involving heroin increased by 1,557%. Use of other illicit substances has grown exponentially as well. From 2011 to 2017, the state crime lab reported that it saw a 375% increase in methamphetamine found in postmortem cases, a 324% increase in meth found in DUI cases, and a 415% increase in methamphetamine found in controlled substance cases.
The spiral downward doesn't stop there. When certain street drugs like heroin aren't available, drug abusers often then turn to incredibly powerful and dangerous synthetics like fentanyl, which sooner or later result in a body bag. In the United States, synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, are now the most common drugs involved in drug overdose deaths, responsible for 59% of all opioid-related decedents.
When we take a big step back and look at all forms of substance abuse across Big Sky Country, the numbers certainly give cause for alarm, especially among the younger population. But why? We know that lack of human contact can be a factor in drug abuse. Could Montana's problem stem from its relative isolation? Or perhaps from a long and difficult winter? In 2015, a study found that 11.4% of Montana adolescents ages 12-17 had been affected at some point by a major depressive episode. Could it be that Montana's drug addiction problem is somehow tied to the very thing that the state is so beloved for - it's rugged and remote wildness. In 2014-2015, Montana's annual average percentage of major depressive episode (MDE) among adolescents aged 12-17 was similar to the corresponding national annual average percentage.
37% of high school students report they've used marijuana at least once. This is of particular concern because we know that marijuana can have negative effects on brain development in young people and can often lead to use/abuse of harder and more dangerous substances.
4 % of high school students (grades 9-12) report they've used cocaine at least once.
4% of Montana youth aged 12-17 report using pain relievers in a way not directed by a doctor within the past year.
The good news for Montanans struggling with drug and alcohol addiction is that help is only a few clicks away. Big Sky Country is awash in resources, whether you just need counseling, a larger community-based approach, or full-on detox services. All it takes is the courage to take the first, terrifying step. Embrace the pain that got you here. Use it. Eat it for breakfast. Own it and move past it.
Montana State Facts
Montana Population: 901,956
Law Enforcement Officers in Montana: 1,116
Montana Prison Population: 4,500
Montana Probation Population: 6,248
Violent Crime Rate National Ranking: 27
2004 Federal Drug Seizures in Montana
Cocaine: 6.2 kgs.
Heroin: 0.0 kgs.
Methamphetamine: 3.6 kgs.
Marijuana: 766.5 kgs.
Ecstasy: 2 tablets
Methamphetamine Laboratories: 35 (DEA, state, and local)
Montana Drug Situation: Mexican poly-drug trafficking organizations are responsible for distributing most of the methamphetamine, marijuana, cocaine and heroin in Montana. These organizations have sources of supply in Colorado, the Southwest Border, the Pacific Northwest, and Mexico. Marijuana is also smuggled into Montana across the Canadian border by smaller organizations. Methamphetamine production and use remains the primary drug issue faced by law enforcement.
Cocaine in Montana: Cocaine is available in the larger communities of Montana, but not widely available throughout the state. Billings, Great Falls and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation are the primary locations for cocaine use. Sources of supply are usually located in Washington, California, Colorado, and the Southwest. Crack trafficking in Montana is primarily limited to the Billings area, where street gangs control the market. These gangs have sources of supply in California and Chicago.
Heroin in Montana: Heroin is not frequently encountered in Montana. Western Montana, primarily Missoula, has a higher availability of heroin due to the proximity to the state of Washington, historically a transshipment point for heroin in the Pacific Northwest.Methamphetamine in Montana: Law enforcement officers across the state identify methamphetamine as the most significant drug problem in Montana. Mexican trafficking organizations are responsible for the majority of methamphetamine distribution in the state. Mexican methamphetamine is most available in western Montana, due to the proximity to established trafficking routes in the Pacific Northwest. Beyond organized methamphetamine trafficking, numerous small-scale local laboratory operators, producing moderate quantities of methamphetamine for personal use or local distribution, are problematic to law enforcement.
Club Drugs in Montana: Club drugs, such as MDMA, are not widely available throughout the state but can be found in the larger communities and on college campuses. Traffickers are typically white males, eighteen to twenty-five years of age, with sources of supply in the Seattle, Washington, area. Abuse of other club drugs, such as LSD, GHB, and Ketamine appear to be limited to college communities.
Marijuana in Montana: Marijuana is the most widely abused drug in Montana. Most originates in Mexico and is smuggled into the state by Mexican poly-drug trafficking organizations. Locally produced marijuana is primarily grown indoors, with grows generally consisting of less than 100 plants. Potent BC Bud or “Kind Bud” from the Pacific Northwest and Western Canada is increasing in popularity and availability. It is often smuggled directly into Montana across the Canadian border, and from there is often transshipped to other areas of the United States.
Other Drugs in Montana: Following national trends, OxyContin has become a pharmaceutical drug of abuse in Montana. Quantities of OxyContin are being illegally distributed in various areas in the state. Dilaudid and other opiate pain killers are also in demand on the illicit market.
DEA Mobile Enforcement Teams: This cooperative program with state and local law enforcement counterparts was conceived in 1995 in response to the overwhelming problem of drug-related violent crime in towns and cities across the nation. There have been 409 deployments completed resulting in 16,763 arrests of violent drug criminals as of February 2004. There has been one MET deployment in the State of Montana since the inception of the program: Big Horn.
DEA Regional Enforcement Teams: This program was designed to augment existing DEA division resources by targeting drug organizations operating in the United States where there is a lack of sufficient local drug law enforcement. This Program was conceived in 1999 in response to the threat posed by drug trafficking organizations that have established networks of cells to conduct drug trafficking operations in smaller, non-traditional trafficking locations in the United States. Nationwide, there have been 22 deployments completed resulting in 608 arrests of drug trafficking criminals as of February 2004. There have been no RET deployments in the State of Montana.
DEA Special Topics: The state of Montana participates in the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), which is based in Denver, Colorado.