News & Features

Meth, Heroin Addiction Continues to Strain Community

Although the Northwest Montana Drug Task Force took less methamphetamine off the streets in 2018 than years past, addiction persists in stressing local systems

Drug addiction continues to strain local law enforcement and medical providers in the Flathead Valley.

The impact of drug addiction — specifically methamphetamine and heroin — was the subject of a Feb. 20 roundtable discussion at Kalispell Regional Healthcare with U.S. Sen. Steve Daines. Medical providers discussed how they continue to see an increase in newborns suffering from the impacts of a parent’s drug addiction.

“It is part of our every day,” said Lisa Smith, a social worker at KRH and a member of the Alliance for a Drug Free Flathead. “The (addiction) crisis is the crisis of our time.”

Between 2010 and 2014, there was a 400 percent increase at KRH in neonatal intensive care unit admissions, mostly due to drugs. In 2017, there were about two-dozen infants born at KRH with neonatal abstinence syndrome. Nationally, about six out of every 1,000 infants are born with neonatal abstinence syndrome. Neonatal abstinence syndrome is a condition that occurs when a newborn is exposed to addictive illegal or prescription drugs while in the mother’s womb.

In 2016 and 2018, KRH received grants to purchase equipment to deal with the increase in neonatal abstinence syndrome. One piece of equipment is a doll that simulates the symptoms of neonatal abstinence syndrome, including unusual irritability, trembling and twitching, stiffness, irregular breathing and even seizures. The hospital also got a special video system that allows its medical specialists to see infants at rural hospitals, including in Ronan, Cut Bank, Shelby, Libby, Conrad, Chester, Glasgow, Havre and Lewistown.

Drug addiction has also led to an increase in property crime, according to Flathead County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Logan Shawback, who works with the Northwest Montana Drug Task Force. Since the Montana Meth Project made headlines in the early 2000s, law enforcement has increasingly confiscated more drugs in the region.

In 2016, the Northwest Montana Drug Task Force took in 28 pounds of meth and a pound of heroin. In 2017, they took in an unprecedented 42 pounds of meth and a half-pound of heroin. And in 2018, the task force took in 13 pounds of meth and three-quarters of a pound of heroin. Despite the sudden drop in meth confiscated last year, Shawback said drug addiction is not on the decline, and his office deals with it every day.

During his visit to Kalispell, Daines said that a multifaceted approach was needed to address Montana’s drug problem, including treatment options and tougher security on the southern border with Mexico.

“You don’t need a silver bullet; you need silver buckshot,” Daines said.

Law enforcement officials said the vast majority of methamphetamine in Montana comes from out of state, including from Mexico. The drug usually comes via Seattle or Salt Lake City. However, some methamphetamine is still produced locally, according to Sheriff Brian Heino. Earlier this month, sheriff’s deputies found three different “one pot” meth labs in one day. A “one pot” meth lab enables someone to produce small amounts of the drug in a single container, usually for personal use.

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