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Smoke it, inject it or snort it. Any way you ingest methamphetamine, it’s still a fast-acting drug known for its visually horrifying and life-altering effects.

And now the destructive drug is on the rise in Missoula County.

Following a spike of individuals charged with felony possession, distribution and sale of methamphetamine in 2007, meth-related crimes in the county dropped in 2008 by 42 percent and again by 19 percent in 2009. For the next two years, the numbers remained relatively constant, until 2012, when meth-related felony charges jumped by 30 percent.

Missoula Detective Sgt. Ed McLean said 2013 is on course to surpass 2012 in the number of meth-related charges.

McLean is a supervising officer on the Missoula Drug Task Force – a drug-fighting cooperative that boasts representatives of the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office and the Missoula Police Department.

He was only authorized to release the percentage increases and not the actual numbers that the force collects from the cooperating organizations.

***

McLean has hard lines etched into his face and speaks candidly, albeit off the record, about drug busts that have taken an emotional toll on his well-being. He has seen people lose their families because of meth and interviewed addicts so far gone they look “like an infection.”

The increase is obviously disturbing to him, but he doesn’t see an obvious explanation – the why.

“There is no concrete reason. There’s none. You are dealing with an illicit substance that everyone knows is bad for you,” McLean said.

He said that many people charged with meth distribution, sale or possession claim that economic hard times have forced them into the profession of drug dealing.

But those defenses offered to him by people facing felony charges related to methamphetamine aren’t viable excuses, in McLean’s opinion.

Meth use, as well as other drug use, boils down to a supply and demand issue.

McLean said the economic growth and job explosion in the Bakken oil fields and Missoula’s location along the Interstate 90 corridor – connecting Spokane to Montana – are two factors to take into consideration when examining the increase.

“There’s an increased demand in the Northwest for methamphetamine that’s infectious,” he said. “When you end up having shipments coming through, it increases the supply in our area.”

The source of the drug is coming directly from Washington or California – but he won’t point to Mexico as the original source.

But for McLean, that’s really beside the point.

“As long as you have demand for it, somebody, somewhere is going to make it,” McLean said.

***

Last week, a woman found in possession of methamphetamine paraphernalia set fire to a bathroom in the emergency room at St. Patrick Hospital.

She said she was trying to kill herself.

According to court documents, the woman, Rachel Thompson, was driving through Missoula County on Interstate 90 with her boyfriend Frederick Slack. The two Washington natives were on their way to a wedding in Las Vegas, but ended up in Justice Court and then the Missoula County jail instead.

Justice of the Peace Karen Orzech told Thompson that she had a terrible drug problem before setting a six-figure bail.

The woman was in hysterics.

Brian Yowell is a public defender who represents a fair number of individuals facing meth-related charges.

“That drug just makes you do it,” Yowell explained. “It’s like rocket-power cocaine.”

When he started in the office nine years ago, meth use was more prevalent because the federal government hadn’t made restrictions on the substances used to make methamphetamines – like some over-the-counter cold medications.

But Yowell said a crackdown on meth labs, as well as the federal regulation that now forces consumers to show identification before purchasing some cold medications, have really curbed the drug’s sphere of influence.

Education and advertising about the adverse side effects of the drug have also helped.

The 2012 numbers haven’t hit the 2007 “danger point,” McLean said.

But why the increase in 2012? Yowell suggests the success of smuggling from meth labs south of the border as a possible explanation.

“They don’t stamp ‘made in Mexico’ on their product,” Yowell points out. “But the Washington labs have to get their supply from somewhere.”

As for Yowell’s clients, they aren’t sure where the drug comes from.

Many of Yowell’s clients facing meth charges are in denial that they have a problem and aren’t able to understand the gravity of their situation. They optimistically believe the judge will release them, while their families and lives fall apart.

“You are in the eye of the storm when you are consuming,” Yowell explained. “You can’t see swirling walls of disaster all around you.”

“It’s scary and the commercials don’t exaggerate it,” he added.

***

There’s a silver-lining in McLean’s numbers.

He said the percentage of juveniles facing meth charges isn’t increasing – a fact that McLean attributes to the Montana Meth Project’s in-your-face advertising and educational programs that give young people solid knowledge they can base their decisions on later in life.

He presents seminars to high schools where he displays grotesque photos of meth addicts – a tactic that is usually more effective than describing the neurological and physiological effects.

“I had one case where I was dealing with a young mother with a 3.7 GPA at the University of Montana, who starts using methamphetamine and the subsequent decline in behavior resulted in the loss of her child (to Child Protective Services),” he said.

“I don’t feel she would have made those decisions had she had a good knowledge base and realized what the consequences would have been of partying up with methamphetamine,” he added.

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Reporter Kathryn Haake can be reached at 523-5268 or at kate.haake@missoulian.com.

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