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State government needs to do a better job of protecting Montana's farmers and ranchers from unfair trade practices, Attorney General Steve Bullock said Monday at the University of Montana.

In the same presentation, Bullock also said prescription drug abuse is Montana's "next epidemic," calling it "the new methamphetamine that's taking over our communities."

Bullock was the keynote speaker for a lunchtime panel discussion on agriculture. It was the first of nine panel discussions during the weeklong Honorable James R. Browning Symposium hosted by second- and third-year law students at UM as part of the Montana Law Review.

This year's symposium focuses on rural law, including agriculture, access issues, natural resources and methamphetamine abuse.

On Monday, before about 75 people at the University Center, Bullock touched on all those topics.

Even though most of Montana's population is concentrated in its urban centers, a third of the state's economy is tied to agriculture, he said.

Montana was one of a dozen states in 2008 to join a civil antitrust lawsuit filed by the U.S. Justice Department against the merger of the third- and fourth-largest meatpacking industries in the country, arguing the acquisition would result in lower prices paid to ranchers, and higher beef prices for consumers.

In late February, the merger was called off. Still, Bullock said he doesn't think Montana ranchers are much better off, considering that four meatpacking companies nationwide control 80 percent of the cattle market.

For every dollar spent at the grocery store, about 19 cents goes to farmers and ranchers, said Jake Cummings, executive vice president of the Montana Farm Bureau, one of three speakers on the panel.

"The ranchers aren't setting the price," Bullock said, "the packers are."

Meanwhile, Montana's grain producers are held captive by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, which controls 95 percent of rail freight transportation in the state, he said. A study released by Bullock's office in late February found that Montana grain producers who ship their products by freight pay some of the highest rates in the country and receive second-rate services.

The lack of rail competition makes Montana growers "captive" to BNSF. Yet, the railway companies are exempt from antitrust laws, Bullock said. As Montana's attorney general, he could not file a lawsuit against the railroad, as the U.S. Department of Justice did against the merger in the meatpacking industry.

Bullock joined with attorneys general from other states to ask Congress to readdress the antitrust exemptions.

He also asked the state Legislature to fund an attorney within the consumer protection division of his office who will focus strictly on rural issues. As of Monday, the money for that position was still contained in the Department of Justice budget.

"We have no one who thinks about what is going on in rural Montana and about how we protect our agricultural producers," he said. By funding this position, Bullock said, "our agricultural interests would be much more protected."

In regards to methamphetamine abuse - the topic of discussion on the final day of the symposium - Bullock acknowledged the drug's detrimental effects, but stressed the need to address what is stacking up to be an even bigger issue: prescription drugs.

"That's the next epidemic we ought to fight and we ought to be vigilant," he said.

The law symposium is free and open to the public. For the first time this year, in order to attract a wider audience, the panel discussions are occurring during the noon hour and in the evenings. Also, for those interested, the symposium is streaming the panel discussions online.

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