The Missoula County Attorney’s Office didn’t charge a single case of methamphetamine possession or distribution in 2007. Last year, there were 117 cases, with 62 open meth cases so far this year, said Jason Marks, chief deputy county attorney.
And meth seizures by the Missoula Drug Task Force are 38 percent higher than they were this time last year, according to its commander, Missoula Police Detective Sgt. Ed McLean.
“Fifteen years ago, an ounce of meth was a huge quantity. Two years ago we seized 2½ pounds in a shipment. In 2007, if someone said we would find that much at once, I would have wondered what the person telling me that was using,” McLean said.
“I think everyone agrees this is a problem that needs a lot of focus and resources put toward it,” said Marks.
Bryan Lockerby, administrator of Montana Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI), said a drug supply that 15 years ago was fueled by home meth labs in Montana slowed dramatically as laws changed to clamp down on the ability to purchase the ingredients for meth.
Now, he says the increase in cases is due to the source of the drug shifting to what he called “superlabs” in Mexico that smuggle drugs across the border and move it into and through Montana from Washington and California, bringing a combination of supply and lower prices to the state.
“In Mexico, the superlabs hire people with science and math backgrounds and have got it down to such a fine point where the meth is almost 100 percent pure and they have driven the price way down,” he said. “If you’ve seen ‘Breaking Bad,’ it’s literally like that.”
Lockerby also sits on the executive board of the multi-state Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, which coordinates local, state and federal resources to combat organized drug operations.
In 2015 Montana-based HIDTA affiliates seized a total of 134 pounds of meth, 4,700 pounds of marijuana and around 13 pounds of heroin, and built cases that dismantled 40 drug trafficking organizations operating in the state, Lockerby said.
Last year, the state handled 232 methamphetamine cases, up from 68 in 2010. Around 80 percent of DCI's drug cases are meth-related, Lockerby said.
Lockerby and McLean said they need more funding to stay ahead of the resurgent meth problem. Currently, cases have to be “triaged,” picking which represent the biggest danger to the public and which have to be shelved, said McLean, whose drug task force includes police, sheriff’s deputies and agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and falls under Rocky Mountain HIDTA.
“There are only so many law enforcement officers in our area and only so many hours in a day,” he said. “We could triple the size of the task force and still be busy. Whenever you shut down a trafficking operation, another one just comes right up in its place.”
Lockerby said in addition to wanting more state funding for investigators, he hopes the Montana Legislature will take an “all of the above” approach to tackling the problem of meth when lawmakers convene next year.
“Enforcement is not the only answer to this. It is everyone working together,” Lockerby said. "We’re just trying to keep targeting these major drug trafficking organizations that are trying to get a foothold in the state.”
To push back against the most recent wave of meth cases, Lockerby said the state also needs to fund more treatment programs and centers as well as drug treatment courts that hold offenders accountable while trying to break their addictions.
“I think there’s been a lot of success in drug courts if you identify the right people and get to them early,” he said. “I think you can throw as much money as you want on the enforcement side but you’ll still have users and demand.”
Montana District Court Judge John Larson, who runs a drug treatment court for juveniles and another treatment court for people who also have pending child abuse or neglect issues, said meth has been a dominant drug in the caseloads. He refers to the treatment courts, which offenders can be sentenced to post-plea, as “coerced treatment.”
“The old view was you really had to want it for it to work. The new standpoint is that this type of coerced treatment works,” Larson said. “It’s big on testing, big on accountability and big on working together.”
The first judge in Montana to start a drug treatment court, Larson said his programs and other drug courts across the state have a lower rate of recidivism than Department of Corrections treatment programs. He'll continue to make presentations to lawmakers in the hope of securing additional funding.
In addition to restricting the sale of meth ingredients, such as pseudoephedrine, found in over-the-counter cold medications, Marks, McLean and Lockerby all cited the work of the Montana Meth Project as another factor they felt helped reduce the methamphetamine problem in the state for a while.
“The presentations they did in the schools, the efforts they made on young people was hugely effective,” McLean said. “Hearing from addicts is more effective than hearing about this from law enforcement.”
The Montana Meth Project didn't return a request for comment.
Marks said the increase in meth in Missoula has been accompanied by a sharp uptick in the number of child abuse and neglect cases, from an average of 51 per year from 2007 to 2011, to 170 in 2015, with an annual report by the Missoula County Attorney’s Office citing a “direct correlation” between the increase in cases and meth use.
The most recently released figure from the Montana Department of Health and Human Services said nearly 3,200 children were in foster care in the state in 2015, up from 1,746 just five years before. The department said more than 1,000 of the children were removed because of their parents' meth use, a more than fourfold increase since 2010.
Missoula prosecutors have also seen a correlation between meth cases and domestic violence and theft.
“If you have somebody committing burglary to support their meth habit, they are going to keep doing it,” Marks said.
By state law, people convicted of a first offense for felony drug possession receive a deferred sentence that usually includes getting a chemical dependency evaluation and following its treatment recommendations.
“Unfortunately, they usually flame out on supervision before that deferral period is up, then they have to go a different way with the Department of Corrections,” Marks said. Often, he said, that means someone who's been convicted will end up being referred to one of the Department of Corrections’ chemical dependency programs such as the Elkhorn Treatment Center or NEXUS Program.
Like Lockerby, Marks said readily available local inpatient treatment programs, successful completion of which could be part of a deferred or suspended sentence, would go a long way toward curbing addiction, drawing down the demand for meth and ultimately reducing the amount of trafficking.
“We all know that no amount of going after distribution is going to solve the problem,” Marks said “If you really crack down on distribution and you double the price they are still going to do what they have to do to get it. It’s a tough addiction to break.”