Fox Targets Montana’s Widespread Substance Abuse Problem

Attorney general launches initiative aimed at state's drug epidemic

By Dillon Tabish
Montana Attorney General Tim Fox. Courtesy Photo

In the last two years, 233 people have died of drug overdoses in Montana, including 36 in this corner of the state, according to public health data.

Fatal drug overdoses in Montana have risen in recent years in the wake of a resurgent epidemic linked to prescription drugs, methamphetamine and heroin.

In 2006, there were 87 drug poisoning deaths, according to the state Department of Public Health and Human Services. Last year there were 109, down from 124 in 2015. In Flathead, Lincoln, Lake and Sanders counties, there were 17 drug poisoning deaths in 2016 and 19 in 2015, according to the DPHHS.

According to the Montana Attorney General’s Office, an estimated 64,000 Montanans 18 and older suffered from substance abuse disorders last year. At the same time, the state only has the resources to provide treatment to roughly 6,000 individuals, the AG’s office said.

Attorney General Tim Fox has launched a new initiative, called Aid Montana, to address the worsening substance abuse crisis. Fox and his office have partnered with the Montana Healthcare Foundation to gather input online and in upcoming public meetings designed to help establish a strategy to combat the state’s substance abuse problem. A meeting is tentatively scheduled in Kalispell on June 22 with a location and time to be announced later.

“We want to hear from people across the state on how to effectively combat Montana’s substance abuse problem,” Fox said. “Whether you’re a healthcare professional, educator, social worker, or have experienced or work with the effects of substance abuse in your work, profession, or family, we want to hear your ideas for what needs to be done to fight this epidemic ripping through our state.”

Fox is taking similar steps as his predecessor, current Gov. Steve Bullock. In 2008, Bullock, then the attorney general, launched an initiative focused on the state’s prescription drug problem, which had overtaken meth as the new “invisible epidemic.” The initiative, hailed by many as a success, led to heightened public awareness and spurred the state Legislature to creating a new prescription drug registry.

Nearly a decade later, the deleterious effects of heightened substance abuse, specifically meth and heroin, are rippling across the state. The state’s Division of Child and Family Services has faced a sizeable increased caseload in recent years and has come under scrutiny for failing to respond to urgent needs.

Last year Montana reported a record 3,179 children in foster care, up more than 100 percent from 1,507 children in 2008, according to a report studying the department and its challenges. A bulk of the increase was tied to parental drug use, according to the report. The number of Montana children in foster care has surpassed 1,000, compared to 230 in 2010.

From 2000 to 2013, Montana experienced a 10-fold increase in the number of infants born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, which involves a host of problems that occur in a newborn who was exposed to addictive opiate drugs while in the mother’s womb.

The rate of prescription drug abuse overdose deaths in Montana has doubled since 2000, according to the Department of Justice.

Between 2009 and 2015, drug-related arrests across the state increased 62 percent and now account for 18 percent of all arrests, according to the Department of Justice. Drug charges are the leading categories for both misdemeanor and felony arrests.

The Department of Justice and the Montana Healthcare Foundation plan to hold a substance abuse and addiction summit this fall to begin developing a prevention strategy using input gathered from the listening sessions.

Fox said the goal is to develop a strategy before the 2019 legislative session and present the findings to lawmakers.

For more information or to provide input, visit www.dojmt.gov/aid-montana.