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Legislation to boost funding for drug treatment courts in Montana is now law.

Gov. Steve Bullock signed HB 654 on Thursday.

Carried by Rep. Zach Brown, D-Bozeman, the legislation sets up a new special revenue account for the state’s treatment courts.

It also brings in additional money through consumer protection settlement funds and a new licensing requirement for opioid distributors.

Brown hopes the changes can lay the groundwork for expanding treatment courts across Montana.

“We know, and there’s a lot of data that points to the fact, treatment courts work,” Brown said. “Yet we totally under-invest in them.”

Montana spends $1.3 million a year on the 36 treatment courts across the state, according to the Office of the Supreme Court Administrator.

The legislation signed Thursday not quite doubles that for the upcoming biennium, with $2 million in one-time-only consumer protection settlement money and a projected $283,000 a year on top of that, which will come from a new licensing fee for distributors.

Retail pharmacies are exempt from the $500 annual licensing requirement.

Treatment courts are often touted as successful models to intervene in addiction and save public dollars in the long run through averted incarceration costs.

For the 938 people admitted to drug courts in Montana between 2012 and 2014, 71.5% did not receive a new felony or misdemeanor conviction within three years, according to the Office of the Court Administrator

Brown’s bill was brought in conjunction with the Department of Justice and originally sought yearly revenue for the courts through a wholesale tax on opioid distributors.

Brown and the Justice Department had cast it as a new way to address the state’s growing substance abuse problem. Brown said drug companies should have “skin in the game.”

But that provision was quickly removed and replaced with the one-time-only money from consumer protection settlements.

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A similar opioid tax passed the New York State Assembly in 2018 but was struck down by a U.S. District Court judge in December as unconstitutional over provisions the companies not pass on the cost to out-of-state consumers.

But while treatment court advocates cinched a win with the legislation, there is a catch: The state has authority to spend only $250,000 a year out of the new account, due to an amendment tacked on late in the process.

That won’t impede the regular allocation of $1.3 million a year, Brown explained.

But it means above that standard yearly funding level, the state can spent only a fraction of the new drug court money it secured.

Brown said he’s committed to continuing to push for more state support of the treatment courts.

“Now we can use the next year and half to raise awareness in communities that don’t have treatment courts and come up with a plan about how to deploy those resources effectively moving forward,” he said.

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Justice Reporter

Justice reporter for the Billings Gazette.