Meth evidence courtesy the Missouri River Drug Task Force

HELENA  – Two decades ago, Montanans were making methamphetamine in their homes, using items they could buy at any store.

“It’s not a war; we will always be battling this. It’s just a matter of how are we going to be successfully ahead of it rather than behind it,” said Division of Criminal Investigation Administrator Bryan Lockerby.

History of meth in Montana

Bryan Lockerby said the first round of meth Montana saw was in the 90s, and the production was very different than what it is today.

“They were very volatile in the labs and they would blow up and there was great risk and the purity was very low,” Lockerby explained.

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In 2005, the Montana legislature passed a law, Senate Bill 287 sponsored by Democratic Senator Trudi Schmidt from Great Falls, that required medicine containing ephedrine to be kept behind the pharmacy counter and a log kept of who bought it.

Data from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality shows an all-time high of meth contaminated properties in the state was in 2002 – at 28.

After the 2005 law change, DEQ meth contaminated properties in the state dropped to five in 2005 and four in 2006.

The drop off in meth is also seen in the Montana Board of Crime Control 2016-2017 report; which shows meth violations declined between 2005 and 2010, but are up 500 percent in the last five years.

The prevalent demand opened the door for the Mexican cartels to bring in meth to the state.

“The cartels have gotten so good at producing meth, at almost 100 percent purity level,” said Lockerby. “There’s no reason for meth labs to be here in the United States anymore.”

As the supply increased, the prices fell; Lockerby said a pound of meth went from around $25,000 to a fraction of that price, allowing just about anyone to get their hands on a large quantity, “So anybody, for $7,500 can become a drug dealer.”

This drop in price allowed meth to flood the market.

“It’s coming in through the highways, it’s coming in through the mail system, it’s coming in on the railways and it’s hitting distribution points and getting here,” added Lockerby.

How Montana is fighting the meth resurgence

The Division of Criminal Investigation has 21 agents tracking hot spots in the state. Lockerby explained that Interstates 15 and 90 are the usual corridors traffickers use to bring meth into the state.

In 2016, 53 percent of DCI’s drug investigations were meth related and the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, HIDTA, Task Force reported seizing 6.53 pounds of meth in Montana.

In the first quarter of 2017, HIDTA reported seizing 6.53 pounds of meth in the state.

“There’s no one clear answer and I can tell you that law enforcement alone is not going to be the answer to something like this,” Lockerby explained.

According to Lockerby, on a state level, DCI has one goal, “To target major drug trafficking organizations that are coming into our state and trying to establish a foot hold.”

The DCI agents have a federal agreement that allows them to cross state lines during an investigation, that Lockerby said will hopefully lead them, “Right to the front door of the cartel and we’re trying to cut the head right off the snake.”

To help fight the battle, over the next two years, the Montana Department of Justice will allot $1.68 million to fund six Montana Highway Patrol Troopers who will focus on preventing drug trafficking.

Currently, there are 11 drug task forces working in the state, covering more than 110,000 square miles.

Lewis and Clark County is part of the Missouri River Drug Task Force, which was formed in July 1994 as a multi-jurisdictional drug task force with funding from the Edward Byrne Memorial federal grant.

Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton explained the statewide problems with meth are not different locally.

“The desire is still there so now we deal with the Mexican drug cartels,” Dutton said.

In February 2017, Montana Attorney General Tim Fox held a meth summit with members of the public as well as lawmakers and healthcare providers.

During the summit, Attorney General Fox said he hired a researcher to work with the Montana Healthcare Foundation to raise the level of awareness of people using meth.

“The list goes on and on but at its core, we’re talking about our loved ones, neighbors, our friends, people we work with, kids in our schools – real lives. Montana lives are important and we need to work to fix this problem,” added Fox.

Looking forward

Bryan Lockerby adamantly said DCI wants to send a clear message to the Mexican cartels that Montana is not the place for meth.

To do that, he believes, “If we don’t have the ability to deter these people from trying to do business in our state, than we’ve already lost the battle.”

Dutton said the influx of meth seen in Montana ultimately comes down to one thing, “The demand will always fuel the supply.”

Getting a handle of the demand for meth will be a struggle.  But the problem will not get erased.

“It’s not a war,” Dutton said. “It’s a constant struggle to maintain peace. War, there’s a beginning and there’s an end. This will not have an end.”

To read about how meth can rip families apart and how the drug led a man down a path of crime, click here.

Click here to return to the Meth in Montana home page, where you can read about what life is like now for three recovering meth addicts and how the drug has had an impact on Montana’s foster care system.