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As legislators gather in Helena, from every corner of Montana they bring their constituents’ voices and concerns. They will debate issues that impact all of us, and though they will work amidst a national political climate racked by rancor and division, here at home they have opportunities to come together and address Montana’s substance abuse crisis.

Montana has one of the highest substance abuse rates among the states. The epidemic destroys lives, shatters families and ripples through our communities. It strains our state budget, driving greater need for social services, courts, law enforcement and more. There is also an economic impact, as substance abuse often limits, even precludes, a person’s ability to function productively.

For many offenders, treatment courts are an effective alternative in the justice system. Yet Montana relies almost exclusively on federal funds for these essential tools. I am bringing legislation to fix that problem and create an additional funding stream for Montana’s drug treatment courts and prevention.

My office and county prosecutors will work to create a diversion program for first-time drug offenders, particularly meth users, so they can get into treatment quickly rather than linger in the court system. I am also working with the Department of Public Health and Human Services to find help for pregnant mothers so they can seek treatment without fear of losing their children because of addiction.

Because of their potency, prescription opiates can be a powerful and effective medical tool when used under the close supervision of a physician. That potency, however, makes opiates addictive and deadly when abused. My bill would require prescribers to use Montana’s prescription drug registry before prescribing certain substances, to prevent the “doctor shopping” that can lead to overdoses and trafficking.

Because research shows limiting first-time opiate prescriptions to five days significantly reduces rates of addiction, my bill would also enact such limitations in certain circumstances. Tightening up identification and verification requirements to prevent forged prescriptions and moving Montana toward electronic prescribing will also help prevent abuse while protecting legitimate use.

While illegal drugs are a significant part of Montana’s substance abuse crisis, alcohol addiction remains a major cause of fatalities and a drain on public resources.

The battle against driving under the influence (DUI) in Montana is not simply a fight against the problem itself, but also against misconceptions and a culture that often sees DUI as harmless or even a right. The research is clear: by the time a person has been cited for a second or third DUI, s/he has most likely been driving under the influence repeatedly.

Montana’s DUI laws have been cobbled together over decades. They are scattered throughout state code and I have heard judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys complain that the laws are convoluted and difficult to enforce consistently. I am proposing a sweeping overhaul. In addition to consolidating and simplifying DUI laws, I also propose substantive changes to allow for blood-draw warrants on first offense, eliminating lookback windows that benefit repeat offenders, giving prosecutors new tools for people who have five or more DUIs, and other improvements.

Substance abuse does not discriminate. It impacts every race, young and old, men and women, every income level. It affects all of us, even those who do not abuse. Our response must be long-term and requires work across the boundaries of elected and appointed officials, political parties, and public and private sectors.

Substance abuse does not care about the barriers that often divide us, and so we must reach across them to combat the crisis on all fronts. I look forward to working with Montana’s legislators to do just that.

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Tim Fox is Montana’s attorney general and leads the Department of Justice.

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