James Gibbs and his family, on a recent trip to Yellowstone.

James Gibbs stands with fiance Sammie Murphy and son Axyl on a recent trip to Yellowstone National Park. Gibbs, who struggled with drug addiction, has been sober for four years.

Growing up in Lewistown, James Gibbs was 13 when he started smoking pot and drinking. At 15, he was doing ecstasy, cocaine and pills. By 18, he was shooting up meth and heroin.

And with drugs came violence: Gibbs first had a gun pulled on him when he was 14.

The breaking point came while sobering up in a jail cell in Texas. Gibbs, who had been in and out of treatment and jail for years, weighed just 96 pounds and didn’t sleep much for 14 days, he said. Talking to law enforcement, Gibbs decided he needed to stop.

“I spilled my guts,” he said. “I was done. I wanted to quit.”

But he didn’t know how. One option was the 48-bed Montana Chemical Dependency Center in Butte. But it’s four hours from his home and the waiting list was 90 days, he was told.

“Try telling an addict to wait 90 days,” he said. “That’s almost a death sentence.”

State leaders hope that changes soon. Lawmakers this year passed a series of reforms aimed at expanding access to treatment, especially in rural Montana, where it’s hardest to find.

‘That’s what opened me up’

One new law gives a boost to a profession that people like Gibbs often rely on to quit using drugs. Called peer support specialists, they are people who have struggled themselves with alcohol or drug addiction, are in recovery and work to support others trying to get clean.

There are more than 800 peer support specialists in Montana, and they've been active in the state for years, working mostly at mental health drop-in centers. The state offered some grant money to fund their services, but it was limited. Other peers volunteered their services, working without pay. 

Until now, the profession has been unregulated and uncertified.

That changed when the new law went into effect Oct. 1. Montana will join at least 38 other states in making peer support services billable to Medicaid, the largest payer for mental health care in the U.S.

Jim Hajny, who runs Montana’s Peer Network, said peer support changed his life. He’s been in recovery for 22 years, and during his second psychiatric hospitalization he was introduced to a peer support specialist.

“The guy, his name was Dan, he spoke to me and said, ‘You know, I get it. Like, I’ve been here. I’ve literally sat in your chair,’ ” Hajny recounted. “That’s what opened me up. It wasn’t my counselor or doctor or medication, or any of that. It was having this peer supporter who could really speak to me.”

Expanding access to drug courts

Lawmakers this year also lifted the ban on violent offenders in drug courts.

Drug courts are specialized court dockets that handle criminal cases, child abuse and neglect, or juvenile cases where the offenders struggle with drug or alcohol addiction. Through weekly court check-ins, drug testing, treatment sessions and sanctions, the courts aim to help people get clean, stay out of jail and be productive in the community.

At times, violent offenders have been accepted into the state’s 26 drug courts, contrary to state law, and were successful, a statewide performance audit found in 2015. Advocates pushed for the ban to be lifted. (Sex offenders are still banned from the special courts.) 

Drug courts are a key path to treatment, especially in rural Montana. Most counties in Montana have no licensed clinical psychologist or marriage and family therapist, and a third of the state’s counties have no licensed addiction counselor, census data shows.

Drug courts serve various Eastern Montana and Hi-Line counties, and they exist on the Rocky Boy’s, Northern Cheyenne, Fort Peck and Crow reservations.

Tackling Montana’s drug problem

Gibbs, the Lewistown man, is far from alone in his struggles with addiction. Between 2008 and 2015, drug arrests went up by 62 percent in Montana, with felony arrests doubling. Meth violations, which were on the decline in Montana between 2005 and 2010, increased by more than 500 percent in the past five years.

These drug cases, combined with probation and parole violations and no-shows in court, are a major driver in the state’s prison and jail overcrowding, a recent study found.

Other bills passed this year to tackle the problem include efforts to expand access to Naloxone, an opioid overdose reversal drug, and to move criminal offenders who receive deferred sentences into treatment more quickly, when space is available. Another new law removes geographic restrictions on state-approved substance abuse treatment providers. The restrictions were intended to spread out services in rural Montana but unnecessarily limited treatment services, critics said.

‘Just as human’

Gibbs has been sober for four years. He has a job he likes working security at a private meth treatment center in Lewistown that contracts with the state. He’s raising his 19-month-old son. And whenever he can, he visits local schools, talking in stark terms to kids about drugs, urging them not to go down that path.

“If I had one thing to say to everybody in Montana, it’d be that people who suffer from substance use disorder are just as human as everyone else and the stigma that we face doesn’t help the situation,” he said. “And we can help one another, one addict to another.”

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Justice Reporter

Justice reporter for the Billings Gazette.