Measuring Meth In Montana

Between the reporting and the reality, the question is this: How big, exactly, is Montana's methamphetamine problem?
Meth is everywhere these days – in newspaper headlines, police records, legislative bills, clandestine labs. In a Jan. 24 press release about meth-related bills before the Legislature, Sen. Trudi Schmidt, (D-Great Falls), called meth "an epidemic spreading across Montana."

No doubt, methamphetamine use is a major concern in our state. No doubt, either, that the more buzz any subject generates, the more prevalent it seems. Between the reporting and the reality, the question is this: How big, exactly, is Montana's meth problem?

Not all the statistics are as straightforward as they seem. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's web site reports that 2003 federal drug seizures in Montana included zero kilograms of heroin, zero ecstasy tablets, 0.5 kilograms of cocaine, 107.2 kilograms of marijuana and 8.8 kilograms of methamphetamine.

But that isn't to say that ecstasy and heroin aren't issues in our state. Rather, explains Mark Long, chief of the Montana Narcotics Bureau in the Department of Justice's Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI), "we always have way more on our plate than we can handle, so kind of like triage in an ER, we just pick those things that we figure are the most dangerous to the public." Because meth labs generate toxic fumes and are highly flammable, and because meth is highly addictive, meth is considered particularly dangerous to the public; thus, in Montana, about 95 percent of DCI's resources are currently devoted to fighting meth, Long says. The remaining 5 percent fight all other drugs, and such prioritization is reflected in those 2003 seizure statistics.

In 2002, Montana law enforcement agencies responded to 122 meth labs statewide, Long says. Given Montana's sparse population and the assumption that for every one lab found there are probably 10 that go unnoticed, "It's splitting hairs on whether we call it an epidemic," he says, but "it's very problematic."

Interestingly, the number of meth labs found in Montana has gone down since 2002, to 89 in 2003 and 63 in 2004. But again, these decreasing numbers can be deceptive. Long explains that while a reduction in meth labs is in part attributed to law enforcement efforts, it is also likely a result of out-of-state "superlabs" that are making better, cheaper meth that is then imported to Montana, thus decreasing the need for in-state labs.

Spokesman Bill Weinman for the DEA in Denver, which is the division that includes drug enforcement in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah, says that the DEA doesn't consider meth an epidemic nationally ("meth use still takes a back seat to marijuana," he says), but that some areas are worse than others; meth use in Montana, he says, is of concern to the DEA for two reasons:

"What we see in Montana is a little bit higher than the national average in methamphetamine use for young adults in particular. We also see significantly higher than the national average in intravenous methamphetamine use, which is an indicator of the more hardcore addict."

Weinman references the Montana Office of Public Instruction's 2003 Montana Youth Risk Behavior Survey for high school students; in that survey, 9.3 percent of students in grades nine through 12 reported using meth at least once in their lives (about the same percentage as had tried cocaine). That percentage is significantly lower than the 44 percent who reported using marijuana at least once in their lifetimes and the 37 percent who said they had had five or more drinks in a row at least once in the past month. But Weinman adds an important detail the report leaves out: The national average for high school students who've tried meth is 7.6 percent, notably lower than Montana's 9.3.

Likewise, he says, a national 1998-2001 Meth Treatment Project found that 56 percent of meth addicts treated in Billings were intravenous users, the highest rate in that study across the country.

And then there's this significant statistic, too: Weinman says that the fiscal year 2002 U.S. Sentencing Commission data shows that 74.4 percent of federal sentences in Montana were a result of methamphetamine-related crimes. The national average for meth-related federal sentencings was 15.5 percent.

These above-national-average statistics suggest that calling meth use an "epidemic" in our state might not be off the wall. Still, says Al Brockway, program manager for the Montana Board of Crime Control, "we don't really classify it as [epidemic] necessarily, but [since] I first came to work here when the drug task forces were first formed in 1987, meth has come a long way to being the second-most-purchased and used drug in Montana to marijuana."

He also says that "with the notoriety methamphetamines have now by the press and so forth, I think you're going to find that between two drugs, methamphetamines will probably be the one investigated by the task force."

Which brings up the media's role in meth's portrayal.

Kelly McBride, group leader of the ethics department at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., says she is surprised by "how quickly one newspaper or television station can create a trend." Recalling her 15 years of police reporting in the Pacific Northwest she says, "meth is this perennial issue to law enforcement, and I really think you've got to look at the numbers to see if it's even a trend ... but even then you're looking at numbers of busts, not the amount of stuff used, and if you want to look at usage, you've got to go into kind of social polls, and those are very hard to come by."

She also says that by consuming any media anywhere in the country "you can come to certain conclusions about the 'master narrative' of drug use, sexual assault, education, any number of issues ... And then if you go out into the world and determine what the real 'master narrative' is, there is a gap, and there's always going to be a gap. But as journalists our job should be not to perpetuate the gap but to narrow it."

Long says it's valid to suggest that media attention can make an issue like meth seem more like an epidemic than it may actually be. But "if the media does a couple articles and gets everybody fired up," he says the heightened awareness is worth even the increase in false-alarm meth-related calls that his office receives. "If we get 50 false alarm calls, I'd rather take those, absolutely," he says, than have people unaware of meth's danger.
Robin Troy is a reporter at the Missoula Independent.
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