Methamphetamine abuse poisons Montana in so many ways that no one agency, program or strategy can curb this crisis. Meth has been a major driver of crime, of child neglect and abuse, of prison and jail crowding.
A comprehensive approach is required. That's why 121 people from 65 different public and private agencies have become members of Yellowstone Substance Abuse Connect. This community coalition aims to complement the work of Project Safe Neighborhoods, an initiative started one year ago by federal, state and local law enforcement to reduce violent crime in Yellowstone County.
The project launched with a $350,000 grant from the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy. But the aim isn't simply to arrest people.
"You don't attack meth by supply alone," said U.S. Attorney for Montana Kurt Alme, although he activated Project Safe Neighborhoods, the multi-jurisdictional initiative that has arrested dozens of drug traffickers and violent criminals over the past year. The goal is "a community plan to address meth that works for Billings," Alme said.
"There's a willingness to get it done," said Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito, noting that law enforcement is buying into the value of addiction treatment. "We've got to hit it on all fronts. We've got to coordinate to get the biggest bang for the buck."
"We want to engage our business community," said Becky Bey of KLJ Engineeering, who is the Connect project manager. "Economic development is super-impacted by this. The idea is to share resources and to communicate, to find goals everyone can get behind."
Meth abuse hinders workforce development. People who are using aren't going to be part of the workforce for very long. Much local property crime is driven by drug addicts seeking drugs or the means to buy more drugs.
The damage from the meth crisis is seen in the explosion of child neglect and abuse cases that has overwhelmed the state foster care system, in the patients showing up at hospital emergency departments, in the drug-exposed babies born in Billings, in our overcrowded jail and high school dropouts.
In 2018, the Yellowstone County Attorney's Office, filed civil abuse and neglect cases to protect 510 children in this county. Eighty percent had parents who were abusing drugs, and 64 percent of those drug abuse cases involved meth.
Also in 2018, Twito's office filed 709 cases of felony drug possession and 105 cases of possession with intent to distribute. Two years earlier, the case filings were 546 possession cases, 60 intent to distribute cases.
Twito, Alme and Bey are among the 19 members of the Connect executive committee, which also includes leaders from local health care, education, courts, law enforcement and corrections organizations.
The federal grant was obtained through the joint efforts of Rimrock, RiverStone Health, School District 2, Mental Health Center, the state Addictive and Mental Disorders Division, United Way of Yellowstone County and University of Wyoming Statistical Analysis Center.
It will take all of us working together to reduce the toll of substance abuse. We can't shut the door or claim drugs are only in someone else's neighborhood or school. The crisis affects all of us.
The Connect members and executive committee are commended for leading the way. They are building a plan based on hard data, enhanced communication and improved coordination of resources. And they have the grant money to ensure that the project is completed.
We urge community members to learn more about Connect, especially our business leaders. This city needs more residents to be sober citizens who can contribute as workers, volunteers and leaders.