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Meth use rose as pandemic hit Montana, other states, urine tests showed

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Kurt Alme press conference

U.S. Attorney Kurt Alme holds a press conference with Sheriff Mike Linder Billings Police Chief Rich St. John and Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito on the courthouse lawn on Tuesday. The men discussed the increase in violent crime in Billings.

Methamphetamine use, a driver of violent crime locally, grew in Montana during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, a laboratory company suggested. 

Millennium Health reported a 34% increase in urine samples that tested positive for methamphetamine after President Donald Trump declared a national state of emergency on March 13. The company compared results from Jan. 1 through March 12 against the results from March 13 through May 31.

The findings were included in a report the company published in July showing increased illicit drug use nationwide in the early weeks of the pandemic.

The report authors analyzed more than 500,000 urine samples from various health care settings, although how many were from Montana was unclear. 

The samples do not include drug testing done in the workplace or under court order. Many come from testing done by addiction treatment providers.

Any samples showing drugs that were covered by a prescription were omitted from the results. 

Public health officials across the U.S. have sounded alarms over an increase in overdose deaths and concerns about drug use growing under the social and economic pressures of the pandemic. 

“There’s something different happening during this pandemic, for sure,” said Kelly Olson, Associate Director of Clinical Affairs for Millennium Health. “We don’t know it all, and as the pandemic unfolds, so will these results, for sure.”

Other states saw more dramatic increases in meth-positive urine samples. Nevada saw a 195% increase. Mississippi saw an 83% increase. Nationally, there was a 20% increase.

The report also warned of spikes in fentanyl misuse. The American Medical Association has warned about the pandemic's potential to increase fatal overdoses. 

Three states saw urine samples positive for illicit fentanyl more than double after the state of emergency was declared, while another three saw rates more than triple.

In Yellowstone County, law enforcement tied increased meth use to violent crime. The county saw a 21% increase in murders, robberies and aggravated assaults from March through July, compared to the same period in 2019. 

U.S. Attorney for Montana Kurt Alme said this week that meth use and domestic violence were major factors.

Alme said that meth had grown more scarce and more expensive as the global pandemic disrupted the illegal drug trade. Alme said prices locally had approximately doubled.

Alme also highlighted the need for better access to addiction treatment and mental health services, and urged those who need professional help to get it.

A multi-disciplinary group called Yellowstone County Substance Abuse Connect is piloting various projects to expand access to treatment. 


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