A rash of heroin overdoses in the past month in northeast Montana has law enforcement on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation worried.
The Roosevelt County Sheriff’s Office has responded to two fatal overdoses and eight near-fatal overdoses in recent weeks and believes heroin — mixed with fentanyl — is responsible.
Sheriff’s deputies arrested a man for heroin possession in February, and on May 2 the office saw its first fatal heroin overdose in recent memory. Since then, law enforcement has seen a spike in 911 calls related to the drug.
Undersheriff John Summers said law enforcement in the rural northeast corner of the state has long dealt with meth, another substance that has alarmed officials in recent weeks.
But Summers says heroin is new to the area.
“(These are the) kind of problems we’ve never had to deal with as a small-time department,” he said.
Drug traffickers target American Indian reservations because of relatively high rates of drug addiction and the ability to make more money by charging higher prices, officials with the sheriff’s office and the Drug Enforcement Administration in Billings said.
“There’s so much drug use on the Indian reservations in the state of Montana so that the cartels, the drug trafficking organizations, know that these reservations are pretty vulnerable,” said Stacy Zinn-Brittain, a supervisor with the Billings DEA.
Billings, too, has seen a “steady uptick” in the heroin problem, Zinn-Brittain said, with the drug first popping up here on a regular basis beginning in late 2016.
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Drug problems on the Fort Peck reservation, home to the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes, have made the news most recently when Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke visited in May, meeting with Chairman Floyd Azure and others to hear about the growing meth problem. Fort Peck Police Captain Jim Summers did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday regarding the heroin problem.
John Summers said heroin has taken the community by surprise in the past month. It’s riskier, he said, because even experienced drug users who have been taking prescription painkillers don’t know how their body will react to heroin the first time.
“Plus you don’t know what’s laced in there,” he said.
Fentanyl has been cut into the batch circulating in Roosevelt County, Summers said. While toxicology results from the overdose deaths aren't finished, the sheriff’s office has been testing portions of the heroin it seized.
The sheriff’s office is working with the Wolf Point Police Department as well as the Fort Peck Law and Justice Department to get more officers equipped and trained in administering naloxone, an opioid-overdose antidote.
Roosevelt County has made two arrests so far in response to the recent heroin problems. One person has been charged in state court and the other is set to be charged soon in Fort Peck tribal court.
Roosevelt County is weighing the feasibility of starting another drug task force for the region, after the last one was shut down due to funding constraints.
John Summers credits quick responses by EMTs with the Northeast Montana Health Services, which has clinics in Wolf Point and Poplar. Ambulance supervisor John Carlbom oversees the operations.
“We probably would have had a few more deaths if it wasn’t for his ambulance crew,” Summers said.