The first time Ethan Smith used methamphetamine was a few months before his ninth birthday. A close family member was a drug dealer, and one night in 1997 the 8-year-old boy saw her using meth. Like any curious child, he asked what it was and why she was smoking it.
“Here, let me show you,” she said.
Moments later, Smith had taken his first hit of methamphetamine. It impacted him almost immediately. He became sick and the next day at school he was sent home early after throwing up. When Smith came home, the family member gave him heroin to level him out. He passed out immediately.
“It made me super paranoid and no kid should be paranoid about anything, except for maybe worrying about what their mom will say when they get their new shoes muddy,” Smith, now 27, said recently. “I never touched the stuff again until I was in my 20s.”
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, methamphetamine use was on the rise in Montana. In response, the state Legislature and federal government passed laws making it harder to get the supplies used to make meth, and five recovery homes were established around the state, including a woman’s recovery center in Kalispell. The Montana Meth Project formed to combat the epidemic, disseminating dramatic and graphic anti-drug ads on highway billboards, radio, television and in newspapers.
The efforts worked. According to the Montana Department of Justice, teen meth use dropped 44.6 percent between 2005 and 2007 and meth-related crime dropped 62 percent from 2004 to 2007. The number of workers who tested positive for meth fell 72 percent during the same time period. These declines accelerated a downward trend in meth use that had been evident since 1999, according to the Montana Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
But today, it appears the progress has slowed, as law enforcement agencies report seeing an uptick in the drug’s use not seen since the early 2000s. The Northwest Montana Drug Task Force has confiscated more methamphetamine in the first six months of 2016 than it did during all of 2015, almost all of it coming from outside the country.
“It’s exploded,” said Mark Mulcahy, commander of the drug task force, which is based in Kalispell. “We used to be excited to get an eight-ball of meth but now we’re taking it in by the pound.”
Smith says getting the drug has never been easier.
“It’s easier to get drugs than it is to get a job,” he said. “You can flip a coin and find a tweaker before it even hits the ground.”
A chemist in Germany first synthesized amphetamine in 1887, and three decades later a more potent version called methamphetamine was made in Japan. The drug, which can be taken orally, smoked, snorted or injected, increases the amount of dopamine produced in the brain, leading to an intense euphoria. However, the high is short-lived and users often take multiple doses to keep it going. Long-term methamphetamine use can result in confusion, anxiety, mood swings, paranoia, hallucinations and violent behavior. Abuse of the drug can also cause extreme weight loss and dental problems, among other health issues.
During World War II, Japan’s Kamikaze pilots were reportedly given high doses of amphetamine before suicide missions, while other soldiers also used the drug to stay alert. In the 1950s, the drug was marketed in a tablet form for weight control. The federal government outlawed the drug with the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.
Law enforcement and health officials say specific drugs rise and fall in popularity over time. In the 1980s, cocaine was common, in the 1990s and early 2000s it was methamphetamine, and by the late-2000s prescription pills were the primary concern. Methamphetamine’s initial surge came with the establishment of homegrown meth labs. Flathead County District Court Judge Robert Allison remembers one year in the late-1990s when more than 40 meth lab cases came before his court.
In response to the scourge, law enforcement nationwide cracked down on meth labs, while state and federal legislators addressed the problem through laws. The Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 regulated the sale of products like ephedrine, pseudoephedrine and phenylpropanolamine. The federal legislation set limits on the quantities of regulated chemicals that people could buy and required stores to keep logbooks of the purchasers.
As meth became harder to produce, opioid abuse, including both prescription pills and heroin, began to rise across the country. Since 1999, the number of opioid overdose deaths has skyrocketed, with nearly a half-million people dying between 2000 and 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Among those addicted to pills was Ethan Smith.
Smith grew up in the Flathead Valley and as a teenager experimented with drugs, mostly marijuana and cocaine. Before high school, he was dealing drugs. The one drug Smith would not do again was methamphetamine.
Smith’s mother died when he was 17. Around the same time, he dropped out of school. Over the next few years, Smith would bounce from job to job and home to home before deciding to join the U.S. Army in 2009. Soon after enlisting, though, he injured his back. The Army prescribed him painkillers and he soon started abusing them. Smith was honorably discharged in 2013 and soon after returned to the Flathead Valley.
No longer in the military, Smith couldn’t get the painkillers he had become addicted to and started to use heroin instead. But at that time, the local heroin supply was drying up, at least temporarily. One day, Smith’s dealer told him that he couldn’t get any heroin but he did have methamphetamine.
“I said, ‘No way, I’ve been down that road before,’” Smith recalled.
But Smith’s withdrawals were intense – “I started to feel like a tin can being crushed” – and three hours later he called the dealer back. He purchased some methamphetamine and smoked it out of a light bulb. A week later, he injected it for the first time. After putting the needle down, Smith began to hallucinate and he watched the bathroom mirror melt into the drain below.
“I thought I was going to die. I thought my heart was about to explode,” he said. “But I used again the next day… and after that I was using every single day.”
To supply his habit, Smith started dealing again and even stealing from family members to get money to pay for his addiction.
“I did anything to get my hands on it,” he said. “I’d steal anything and pawn it.”
Smith was apparently one of many Montanans discovering, or rediscovering, meth. According to Bryan Lockerby, an administrator for the Montana Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation, his agency dealt with 68 cases involving methamphetamine in 2010, but by 2012 it had spiked to 143 cases statewide. In 2015, the division handled 232 meth-related cases. Lockerby said about 80 percent of all drug cases his office prosecutes now involve methamphetamine use.
Unlike the early 2000s, when much of methamphetamine was homegrown, Lockerby said most of what is coming into the state today is produced in Mexico. Flathead County is one of five federally designated High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas in Montana, which allows state and local officials to access federal funding allocated for combating drug crimes. Some of that money goes to the Northwest Montana Drug Task Force.
The task force is based out of the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office and covers six counties, including Flathead, Lincoln, Lake, Mineral, Sanders and Glacier. Mark Mulcahy has been the task force commander for three-and-a-half years, overseeing eight detectives, including undercover agents.
Every week, Mulcahy’s detectives confiscate methamphetamine, or purchase it through undercover work, to try and determine its source. A decade ago, the task force would usually confiscate a few ounces of meth at a time, but in the last few years the haul has grown significantly. In 2014, the task force took nine pounds of methamphetamine off the street. The next year, it hauled in 15 pounds worth $5 million, and so far in 2016 it has confiscated or purchased more than 20 pounds.
Mulcahy said dealers often transport methamphetamine from Washington to sell it at a higher price here – an ounce in Seattle goes for upwards of $450, but in the Flathead Valley they can make more than $1,200 for the same amount.
Increased meth use and rising prices have contributed to an increase in theft, too, Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry said.
“Being an addict is expensive and a lot of people don’t have six-figure jobs to maintain their habit, so they turn to property crime,” Curry said.
Mulcahy and his agents said they believe drug use in the Flathead Valley is more widespread than most people realize.
“My perception of drug users has changed 180 degrees since taking this assignment,” said one of the task force’s undercover agents who asked not to be named because of the job’s sensitivity. “Some of these folks are decent people who are just dealing with addiction… They’re not violent criminals.”
But that’s not always the case. According to court documents, the murder of a 35-year-old Kalispell man in the spring was related to drugs and one of the suspects, Melisa Ann Crone, allegedly had methamphetamine when she was arrested.
“The more drugs we get the more violence we could have,” Mulcahy said. “This is still a nice place to live in and we want to keep it that way.”
Some law enforcement officials believe that the valley’s methamphetamine problem is one of the reasons the county’s jail is constantly crowded. Addiction seems to be causing problems in other parts of the criminal justice system, too. Judge Allison said most of the cases he sees are drug related; even in those that aren’t, drug use is often an underlying factor.
“I think drug use is becoming a much bigger problem in this community than most people realize,” Allison said.
The spread of drug use is also having impacts on other institutions. According to the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, in 2010 there were more than 800 children in foster care statewide because of neglect stemming from parental substance abuse. By April of this year, that number had doubled to more than 1,600. According to a Great Falls Tribune story in May, of the 150 foster care cases in Cascade County this year, nearly 60 percent were tied to methamphetamine use.
While in the past some have said that more jail space and harsher punishments would reduce drug use, Flathead District Court Judge David Ortley said it’s a far more complex problem that cannot be addressed by the justice system alone.
“You cannot incarcerate addiction away,” Ortley said. “You can lock someone up and while they’re in jail or prison they may not use, but unless you change the way they think, they’ll go right back to using when they get out.”
Ortley and other judges have advocated for a more therapeutic approach, including sending those convicted of non-violent drug crimes to therapy instead of prison. Some have even suggested establishing a drug court that sentences defendants to treatment. Flathead County Commissioner Phil Mitchell said local officials have been studying the idea in recent months and he believes it could help relieve the county’s jail overcrowding problem.
“I want to find options beyond just throwing people in jail,” he said.
District Court Judge Heidi Ulbricht previously ran a municipal drug and DUI court in Kalispell. She said she plans to apply for federal funds to establish a drug court at the district level in 2017.
Michael Cummins, executive director of the Flathead Valley Chemical Dependency Clinic, said he supports the idea of a drug court because it makes treatment, not punishment, the objective. The chemical dependency clinic, established in the 1970s, offers drug evaluations and outpatient treatment, including therapy and counseling. It sees about 350 to 400 people annually.
Cummins said the clinic has seen an increase in people dealing with meth addiction in recent years. In 2013 and 2014, 11.8 percent of the clinic’s patients reported struggling with meth addiction, making it the third most abused substance after alcohol (59 percent) and marijuana (15.8 percent). But in 2015 and 2016, methamphetamine abuse climbed to 17.5 percent, making it the second most abused substance, ahead of marijuana.
But treatment isn’t an easy process and it’s not unusual for clients to relapse, Cummins said.
“Meth changes what the brain does and it can take a year of treatment and support for it to recover,” Cummins said. “You can’t just stay clean for 30 days or even six months and think you’re good. At that point, you’re just getting started.”
Cummins said the only way to address the state’s growing methamphetamine problem is to direct more resources toward education and treatment.
“(Montana’s meth) problem is far from solved,” said Amy Rue, executive director of the Montana Meth Project, which has been providing education regarding the drug’s dangers for more than a decade. “Some of the gains we made by shutting down domestic labs are being offset by an increase in meth coming from Mexico. To truly solve this problem we have to reduce the demand, and that can only be done through education.”
Eighteen years after he first smoked methamphetamine as an 8-year-old, Ethan Smith has been clean for nine months. In October 2015, after losing custody of his son and his job, he decided enough was enough. With the help of therapy, counseling and support from other recovering methamphetamine addicts, Smith said he is finally getting his life back on track, but it hasn’t been easy.
“This has been the hardest nine months of my life,” Smith said. “It’s been a living nightmare but every second that goes by for me is a lifetime record of sobriety because I haven’t been clean since I was 8-years-old.”
Smith got a job at a local auto shop and is living in a camper on his grandparents’ property. He’s working hard to get his life back in order and recently was allowed to have his son stay overnight with him. But the urge to use hasn’t gone away. When a craving hits, he usually calls a counselor or friend to talk him through it.
“When I come home to this crappy camper, I think how great it would be to crack open a beer,” he said. “But I know if I do that, it wouldn’t be long before I’m looking at a needle sticking out of my arm.”
Smith said his dream now is to stay clean, have a steady job, a family and a home. He knows that those ambitions will take time to achieve, but he’s confident he can do it, even though he knows he will always be an addict. The key is keeping the urges at bay and making the right choices.
“Life will never get easy, but if I make the right choices, it will get simpler,” he said.
Smith is especially open with friends about his past because he hopes that his story will resonate with other people who struggle with addiction.
“I want to be able to help the next Ethan Smith,” he said. “I’d rather wish death on someone than addiction, because all addiction is is a slow painful death.”