Fox and Bennion

Montana Attorney General and candidate for governor Tim Fox, left, and Deputy Attorney General and candidate for attorney general Jon Bennion join a local meeting on the drug epidemic in Montana. A newly formed coalition in Richland County is determined to tackle the problem on the local level.

The rundown

Montana is facing a substance abuse epidemic and Richland County is feeling the hurt on a local level. Drug related crimes are peaking, with local law enforcement estimating around 90 percent of county jail inmates have drug-related crimes or were abusing drugs at the time of their crime. Alcohol is still the number one substance being abused in the state, but methamphetamine is on the rise — the overwhelmingly majority of meth is being trafficked into Montana from Mexico.

The response

Government Affairs committee in Sidney has started a drug awareness coalition to combat substance abuse and have reached out to Sidney Police Department, Richland County Sheriff’s Office, Richland County Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Prairie Hills Recovery Center, Sidney High School, city council and county commission for assistance in formulating a plan to combat area drug and alcohol abuse.

The first meeting for the coalition took place Tuesday, Sept. 10, with Montana Attorney General Tim Fox and Chief Deputy Attorney General Jon Bennion stopping by while they were in town on a campaign trail. Fox said meth related crimes have had a 100 percent increase from 2014 to 2018.

“While nobody wants to have these issues in their community, this is all over the state in varying degrees,” Fox said. “We’re also seeing it’s a kind of an organic and systemic issue. It’s not one industry, like for instance when the Bakken boom moved in and out. You might see a spike and might see individuals from out of state engaging in these activities temporarily, it really is something systemic in our communities.

“We’ve changed our attitudes over the years in terms of how we look at substance use disorders, the psychology and psychiatry of having what we call an addiction is being understood more and more. It’s tremendously difficult to get someone out of that cycle of abuse.”

Fox said the substance abuse issue in Montana is a force to be reckoned with.

“This is an epidemic of crisis proportions we’ve never seen in our state before,” he said. “I think the next administration in the governor’s office has to tackle this head on.”

Bennion said there are three big categories when addressing addiction: enforcement, prevention and treatment.

“When I was growing up, we had Dare, ‘Just Say No,’ things like that,” Bennion said. “Montana Meth project was another major effort. We need to have something tailored for Montana that keeps people from getting addicted in the very first place. We know we can’t get everybody, but what if we just started to chip away at it by 10 percent?”

Bennion also spoke about expanding drug treatment court programs in the state, funding and state resources for tasks forces. He said there are almost no resources available from the state for drug task forces.

“Enforcement is not going to go away. We can’t say treatment and prevention are enough,” Bennion said. “Nobody just wakes up one day and says, ‘I think it would be a good life decision to start doing meth.’ No one does that. There is a path to meth. Understanding how somebody could arrive at that point, figuring out what may have diverted them, is incredibly helpful.”

Fox left the newly-formed group with a hopeful message.

“I’m from eastern Montana. I grew up in Hardin. This entire state, I love. It hurts me personally to know and understand that we have people dying, that we have needs going unmet and that people sometimes feel unsafe in their own communities,” he said. “That’s not what Montana is all about. But if I have any reason to be happy or excited, it’s that Montanans are also the best at solving problems.”

What’s next

The coalition discussed many possible avenues to begin solving substance abuse issues on the local level, from reinventing the Dare program, to parental involvement and law enforcement solutions. Chief of Police Frank DiFonzo and Richland County Sheriff John Dynneson agreed to work on a budget for what a task force may cost. The group will also reach out to other parties who can contribute to solutions, like Judge Luke Savage, county attorney Janet Christoffersen, Fairview school officials and Rep. Joel Krautter. The next meeting will be Tuesday, Oct. 8.

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