People who showed up for Saturday’s March Against Drugs and Violence heard some startling statistics.
About 150 people gathered at the Yellowstone County Courthouse lawn to hear a series of speakers, march downtown and enjoy a barbecue lunch. With the theme “Placing Drug Abuse in a Box,” Saturday was the 21st march, annually organized by Billings City Council member Mike Yakawich.
Many of the participants wore T-shirts handed out for the occasion. While they were waiting for the start of the event, a few people used plastic wands to create rainbow-colored bubbles.
But anyone who came hoping for only good news likely got their bubbles popped.
The drug overdose crisis has reached epic proportions, Travis Birney, special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration, told the crowd of about 150 people.
“We lost enough people to drug overdoses last year that we could fill the Chicago Bears stadium,” Birney said. “You are now 50 percent more likely to die of a drug overdose than from a vehicle accident in the United States.”
Billings Police Chief Rich St. John said that his department has made “some very significant arrests over the years and made some good inroads into the city’s drug and violence problems.
But there’s more to be done, he said.
“Billings has lost over 100 of our citizens to opiate overdose, be it prescription drugs, heroin or fentanyl,” St. John said. “In a 10-year period we’ve seen our violent crime increase 85 percent.”
He said the department is resolute in its efforts to stand with the community and to "let people know that this is unacceptable."
Each day, Billings Mayor Bill Cole said, more than 46 people die in the United States from overdoses involving opioids. That's roughly 500 percent higher than the number of opioid overdoses in 1999.
Cole traced the saga of prescription opioid drugs in the U.S. back to a time when 25 million adults grappled with chronic pain that “may be mentally oppressive or completely physically disabling.” There was little that could be done for them.
An entire cast of researchers, physicians and the pharmaceutical industry over several decades, responded with an arsenal of pain-fighting weapons, Cole said. In some cases the drugs brought much-needed relief.
"In others, when over-prescribed, stolen or synthesized in unregulated laboratories around the world, it brought addiction, violence and, in some cases, death," he said.
The problem seems overwhelming, Cole said, and answers start with education. Little by little, solutions can be implemented “with one community, one neighborhood, one person at a time,” he said.
Rhonda Smith is proof that with much grit and determination, drug addiction can be overcome. Smith, a resident of Passages, the women’s drug and alcohol treatment unit in Billings, told the crowd of her journey through a tortured past.
From the time she was a teen, Smith grew up with family and friends who bought, sold and used pain relievers. When she was 15, she sprained her ankle and was given a fairly mild pain reliever.
“But I remember vividly the feeling I got when I was on them,” she said. “And that I kind of got a little bit of the sense of what all the fuss was about.”
At 21, Smith’s father died in a car accident. He was drunk and high on pills at the time, and two pills and a straw for snorting were found in his pocket.
Less than a year later, Smith sustained a neck injury in a car crash and and was given hydrocodone for the pain.
“That’s where my addiction got its start,” she said. “Between neck pain and migraines I was able to get an ongoing prescription that was meant to last a month but usually didn’t even last through the week.”
Though she became pregnant, Smith continued to snort all her pills and any stronger pills she could buy on the street. At first, the pills made her feel wonderful.
But it didn’t take long for the fun to end.
“Pills were the first thing I thought of when I opened my eyes in the morning,” Smith said. “And at night I would count up the milligrams in the amount of pills I had done to make sure it would be safe to go to sleep.”
Securing the pills consumed her life. Smith couldn’t focus on anything or anyone else.
In June 2009, when her younger brother died of a fentanyl overdose, she was shattered.
“My little brother and my very best friend was gone and he had overdosed on fentanyl, a pain reliever that’s 80 times stronger than morphine,” Smith said.
That September, she was sentenced to misdemeanor drug court for her third shoplifting offense. Shortly before graduating, she relapsed.
When her probation officer searched her car, he found a used fentanyl patch and Smith was charged with her first felony, criminal possession of dangerous drugs. She detoxed in jail, one of the “absolute worst experiences of my life.”
Smith went on to use meth, and eventually spent a year in prison. She's just completing two years in Passages.
She is two years sober, and works hard at that sobriety — with AA, her sponsor and her church all part of her team. Smith acknowledged the damage her addiction caused to others in her life, for which she is trying to make amends.
“I hope that I’ve given someone hope, that they can relate to my story and know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “Because today I’m living my life, I’m not merely existing.”