EVERGREEN — U.S. Attorney General William Barr visited Northwest Montana on Friday to learn firsthand the impacts of the state’s ongoing methamphetamine crisis.
Barr attended a roundtable discussion hosted by U.S. Sen. Steve Daines with representatives from local, state and federal law enforcement agencies as well as from the health care community. The hour-long discussion took place at the Flathead County Sheriff’s Posse Center in Evergreen.
During his opening statements, Barr pinned much of the blame for the methamphetamine crisis on Mexico, where local and federal officials say much of the drug is coming from.
“We have to get Mexico to fight these drug cartels … They have totally lost control of their own country,” Barr said. “The head of this snake is outside of the United States and we have to stomp on it.”
More than a decade ago, most of the methamphetamine used in Montana was made locally, but over time the state made it harder to acquire the ingredients needed to make the drug. Flathead County Sheriff Brian Heino said that in the last few years the amount of methamphetamine his deputies have obtained has increased dramatically.
According to 2019 data that Heino shared with Barr and others in attendance, the Northwest Montana Drug Task Force, which includes Flathead and surrounding counties, has seized or purchased through undercover operations more than 22,000 grams of methamphetamine valued at almost $400,000. In comparison, the task force has obtained just 200 grams of heroin.
Heino and others in attendance said an increase in methamphetamine use has resulted in an increase in other crimes, including assaults and thefts. According to numbers shared by Daines, meth-related crime has increased by more than 600 percent in the state from 2011 to 2017 and violent crime is up 48 percent during that same period of time.
“Every crime we’re dealing with is related to drugs, be it thefts, assaults and even murders,” Heino said.
While local law enforcement generally agreed that stopping the drug from coming into the country would be helpful, they also said treatment and prevention resources are just as important locally.
“We cannot arrest our way out of this problem,” said Whitefish Police Chief Bill Dial. “We need prevention and treatment as well.”
In 2018, state budget cuts resulted in the Western Montana Mental Health Center closing down in Libby. Lincoln County Sheriff Darren Short said the loss of that resource meant that some people in that community were “self-medicating” with drugs. Short said he has seen an increase in drug-related issues in the last year, and he believes it’s a result of the mental health center’s closing.
Heino said he believes that early law enforcement interactions with young people can also prevent people from using drugs. He believes that the sheriff’s office’s recently restored school resource officer will be a big help in combating addiction from the start.
Before arriving in Kalispell, Barr stopped in Pablo to visit with officials from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to launch a new national strategy to address the issue of missing and murdered Native American women. The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Initiative will place MMIP coordinators in 11 U.S. Attorney’s offices who will develop protocols to help coordinate law enforcement efforts when responding to a missing person case. The plan also calls for the FBI to get involved with local cases when needed.
“American Indian and Alaska Native people suffer from unacceptable and disproportionately high levels of violence, which can have lasting impacts on families and communities. Native American women face particularly high rates of violence, with at least half suffering sexual or intimate-partner violence in their lifetime. Too many of these families have experienced the loss of loved ones who went missing or were murdered,” Barr said in a statement issued to the media. “This important initiative will further strengthen the federal, state, and tribal law enforcement response to these continuing problems.”
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