BUTTE — Montana's methamphetamine problem, once thought to be on the wane, has bounced back with a vengeance as Mexican cartels flood the state with the highly addictive, destructive drug. And at least one top drug cop says Southwest Montana is the hottest meth trouble spot in the state.
“Super labs” can produce more than 500 pounds of high-quality methamphetamine at a time and operate in Southern California and northern Mexico, where the majority of production takes place, said Mark Long, chief of the state Department of Criminal Investigation Narcotics Bureau.
One-pot meth labs peaked in Montana in the ‘90s through early 2000, with law enforcement seeing 100 to 150 a year. The labs took a hit as federal and state laws placed restrictions on the sale of pseudoephedrine and ephedrine — ingredients used to manufacture meth.
The labs slowly ticked back up a couple of years ago, but the purity and low cost of Mexican meth will likely thwart their resurgence in the state, said Long.
The Sinaloa Cartel is the dominant Mexican cartel “basically doing business in our back yard,” said Bryan Lockerby, administrator of Montana’s Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation, adding that the footholds cartels have in the U.S. are evidence of the scope of what law enforcement is up against. The intricate smuggling methods include placing drugs in the cavities of puppies and humans, concealing crystal meth in candy, and hiding marijuana inside individual onions stored in bags on a pallet.
The drug pipeline north to Montana utilizes the Interstate 15 corridor from Los Angeles through Las Vegas and up to Salt Lake City and into the Treasure State. Meth also travels Interstate 5 to Yakima, the Tri-Cities, Seattle, and Spokane, where it meets Interstate 90, said Long.
In southwest Montana, Long said, the outlook is dismal. “That’s the hottest problem spot for meth in the state,” he said, though he added that narcotics agents in Billings would argue that, because of its larger population and being a jumping-off point to two Indian reservations and the Bakken, where drug cases increased by 55 percent in 2014-15.
Butte-Silver Bow Detective Kevin Maloughney said meth has “grown immensely” since he worked eight years with the Powell County Sheriff’s Office in Deer Lodge, two of those with the Southwest Montana Drug Task Force. He recalled the drug scene in 2003 was similar to what “we’re seeing today.”
What’s changed is the enormous growth of meth and “now the purity is ridiculous — 95, 99 percent,” the Butte native said.
Maloughney said the business has also become violent, with dealers and users often either packing or having access to multiple weapons. Law enforcement is also seeing a “ridiculous” amount of money that dealers are making.
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With the influx of potent meth comes an insatiable hunger for the next fix, which drives thefts, burglaries, and assaults, the detective said. As a young boy, he recalled residents leaving doors unlocked and having a rifle in a gun rack in their pickup. Now, he said, people have to secure their homes and their vehicles to prevent themselves from being victims.
Despite meth’s top rank in the state's list of abused drugs, followed by prescription pills and marijuana, state law enforcement officials say a tsunami of heroin is coming.
“We have to prepare for it, because it’s on its way,” said Lockerby. “What we have is a bunch of rookie heroin users, and that’s what makes it dangerous.”
For an agency that’s “stretched pretty thin,” the reality of too little resources for a burgeoning drug problem means casting a wider net beyond what the upcoming Legislature could approve.
“We’re just going to have to practice triage like an emergency room and take whatever happens to be the biggest problem at the time and deal with it. … We’re just adding more and more issues here and no more resources at any level — treatment, prevention, or law enforcement,” said Long.
The agency has 112 full-time employees with 41 sworn agents, 21 of which work in narcotics and average about 500 cases a year.
Lockerby said his team manages two of seven drug task forces across Montana, focusing on local impact cases and upper level drug traffickers in an attempt to “cut the head off the snake” of what’s coming into the state. Agents are also involved in federal task forces such as the FBI and may assist in cases on tribal lands.
Butte-Silver Bow health officer Karen Sullivan said it’s difficult to quantify the health impact from methamphetamine on the city of about 34,000 without data. Some officials say it is a statewide epidemic; others believe that’s too dramatic a label to assign.
But Sullivan is calling for a multi-agency collaboration to “batten down the hatches” and find answers to a scourge that threatens the resilient and close-knit community.
“If we’re going to attack meth use on a statewide level and on a local level, it will require a huge collaborative effort of every agency that might have an impact on this, and that could include doctors,” she said. “Without a collaborative — almost a continuum of approaches — I don’t think we’re going to lick it.”