This begins a series of articles over the next several weeks that will focus on educating the community about drug use in Valley County.
If you've looked at your friends and neighbors and the local community with rose colored glasses, you might not realize the secrets that lurk behind the doors. The truth is that Valley County has seen its share of drug issues. Some of those drug issues have increased from the influence of the Bakken.
"Meth labs have gone away, but it's more accessible," Valley County Deputy Reed Mesman said. "Meth use has been increasing the most in our area, and we think that has a lot to do with the Bakken."
The oil fields have brought hundreds of workers that have flooded eastern Montana and western North Dakota. Their high paying jobs and the money flow has attracted more than just business. High quality meth from Mexico has made its way across the travel corridors, and the quality is much purer than seen in previous years.
"Some of those drugs come up from California, and out of Yakima, Washington, it then moves through the northern corridors," Valley County Sheriff Glen Meier said.
The truth about drug transportation is that it may be easier than you imagine. We've all seen the movies with armed vehicles and armed men in the back of a truck, but in reality the recent movie "We're the Millers" might portray a more realistic picture. Recreational vehicles, cars, SUVs, trains and even the mail have been carrying drugs into the area. The demand in drugs have gone up, which has raised the volume of drugs the county has seen.
"The demand is bigger; there's large quantities traveling through here," Mesman said.
While the county has been looking at restarting a drug task force in the area, Mesman has been putting time in with a focus on local drugs. He explained that the quality of meth is more potent, but so is the quality of marijuana. The marijuana that has been seen throughout law enforcement has carried much higher levels of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol).
THC found in marijuana is what is responsible for the changes in behavior and psychological effects. It affects the areas in the brain associated with thinking, memory, pleasure, coordination and time perception. It can also relieve pain and will release those feel-good dopamines, which create euphoria. The chemical will interfere with how information is processed and is considered a hallucinogen. That more potent weed you can find on the streets today isn't your "Woodstock weed," according to local law enforcement.
While weed might be a more constant battle as states like Washington and Colorado begin to legalize it, wrongful use of legal drugs prescribed by doctors have found the way to all ages in Valley County. Mesman and Meier agree that pills are creating more issues locally. Pills are safer than some other drugs, and while their exact quality is hard to know they can come in high quantities. Drugs might not be traveling far in local cases.
"People get higher quantities in Canada, and those prescriptions can be filled and sold; that's all happening locally," Mesman said.
So what makes it illegal to hand over your pills? Meier said that pills are prescribed to specific patients, and once you hand those pills over to someone else for use you are breaking the law. Because it's difficult to keep track of this, it has been hard for law enforcement to collect specific data on age groups or who might be at the center of the abuse. The drugs morphine, Vicodin and oxycodone are common drugs in Valley County.
Meier explained that last summer one prescription drug overdose was reported in the county, but there may be more out there that were never reported. Montana as a state ranks 21st in drug overdose mortality rate in the United States. Around 12.9 per 100,000 people suffer drug overdose fatalities, according to a report released called the Prescription Drug Abuse: Strategies to Stop the Epidemic.
While these marijuana, meth and prescription drugs are the most seen in county cases, other drugs can be found. The cost of drugs have also increased. While meth labs are becoming a thing of the past, it hasn't seemed to slow down desperate users who might not be able to afford the inflated prices but need to feed their addiction.
Someone with a deep knowledge on the eastern Montana drug problem is Ron Kemp. the juvenile probation officer for the 15th Judicial District. He worked in addressing the area's drug issue from 1978 until 2011 in various positions through law enforcement. He explained that the drug task force started out of Glendive in 1986, when money was allocated to several agencies. He worked with agencies in Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota and Wyoming over the years.
He also spent a lot of time undercover as a field agent for the Eastern Montana Drug Traffic Program. Kemp recalled an influx of drugs in the area in the 1980s during a previous oil boom. He worked mostly street level cases because he has a passion for keeping drugs away from kids.
"People show up to take advantage and prey on them when there's money," Kemp said. "Their (youth) brains and bodies aren't developed yet. You add substance to that and they will never reach their full potential."
Recent studies have shown that marijuana has a very negative effect on kids under the age of 16. He's learned from his experiences over the years and witnessed the effects of drugs.
Kemp also said that the inflation of drug prices from the time he started to the time he stepped down from the drug task force in 2011 was incredible. An ounce of weed cost as little as $15 and now goes for as high as $400. He's tracked "BC Bud" – a type of marijuana – cocaine and other drugs through smugglers in eastern Montana. One thing he wants everyone to understand is that drugs are here, and with drugs come other crimes.
"I've bought a lot of dope around here," Kemp said.
While Kemp wasn't really sure if there was an absolute gateway drug, he said that all drugs tend to lead to other crimes. From alcohol use to the meth addict, any substance that alters your body will cause people to make bad decisions. He's seen children go hungry, abused and neglected over the years. He's seen domestic violence, burglaries and break-ins, gun running and illegal sales of weapons – all tied to drugs.
Next week: The science behind drugs and how they affect our thinking and behavior. Also: a look into mental health and whether people with drug issues are self-medicating, or they develop mental health issues from drug use.