Not long ago, Montana declared victory in the battle against methamphetamine. In 2008, a report issued by then-Attorney General Mike McGrath's office celebrated that meth use was waning, as measured by decreasing meth-related treatment admissions, decreasing crime and fewer meth lab seizures. The report attributed widespread public awareness campaigns and targeted law enforcement efforts with its success, and concluded, "With the continued educational and prevention efforts of the Montana Meth Project, it is logical to conclude that meth use will continue to decline and, subsequently, countless new users will be diverted from meth addiction."
Almost a decade later, that prediction has not come true. By all accounts, meth use is making a comeback.
"Epidemic is an accurate word," says Missoula Police Det. Sgt. Eddie McLean, who's been with the department since 1996. Ten years ago, he says, most patrol officers didn't encounter meth cases in their daily operations. These days, everyone on the force, including many trainees, has dealt with it firsthand. The Missoula County Attorney's Office notes that meth possession cases have nearly tripled in recent years, from 34 cases in 2013 to 91 cases in 2015.
Ravalli and Flathead County sheriff's offices see similar trends. The Montana State Public Defender's Office reports that abuse and neglect cases related to methamphetamine and heroin use are swamping the office's caseload, with 21,000 open cases at the end of fiscal year 2014.
"It mystifies me," McLean says. "I mean, I hear the excuses from drug users, what made them end up trying this ... but we are in the social media age, where so much information is available at our fingertips. They know how self-destructive this drug is."
It turns out that despite millions of public and private dollars spent on warning Montanans to not try meth"not even once," as the Montana Meth Project tagline reads—people are still trying meth and getting addicted. Experts say it will take much more than just shocking billboards to truly address the roots of substance abuse in the state.
"Not an easy answer"
Law enforcement successfully shut down most of the major in-state meth manufacturers in the early 2000s, but that hasn't stemmed the tide of high-quality drugs being trafficked into Montana. In 2014, the Montana Highway Patrol seized 18 pounds of meth during 112 arrests.
"We've done a good job of getting rid of the big in-state labs, but there's a lot more coming in from super labs in Mexico," says John Barnes, communications director for Montana Attorney General Tim Fox. "It's a big concern for us."
Missoula's Sgt. McLean adds that he's seeing methamphetamine of a much higher purity level coming through the state.
"We are on a major corridor of I-90," he says. "The information that we end up getting when we're doing our large scale drug investigations is that pound quantities of methamphetamine are either coming into Missoula or passing through Missoula."
In Missoula, a quarter gram of methamphetamine—roughly enough for one hit—starts at about $10 for the cheapest stuff, according to Bucky, a local meth user who only gave his first name. An eight-ball of crystal methamphetamine, which is about 3.5 grams, runs $250-$300.
"Ten years ago, meth was cheaper," Bucky claims. "It's more scarce now. Though you can find it easier than weed."
Bucky, 33, suffered a brain aneurysm about five years ago, leaving him partially paralyzed on the left side of his body. He says he was unable to find work after the stroke and currently lives off about $700 per month in disability benefits. He likes to play "Magic: The Gathering" and listen to heavy metal.
Bucky says he was mostly a weed smoker in his 20s and didn't take to meth until after the stroke. He's not a big drinker; he used to watch his mother down a quart of liquor a day, but he doesn't like how booze makes him feel. He's also tried heroin, but says he's wary of the effects of opiate withdrawal. Meth, on the other hand, gives him a boost. He stays up for several days at a time, just walking around town and hanging out with friends.
"It helps me feel more normal," Bucky explains. "Because I used to be so high energy, I looked like a tweaker when I wasn't on dope."
Bucky gets clean needles from the Open Aid Alliance's syringe exchange program. He usually waits to return his used needles until he can get a ride from his case manager at 3 Rivers Mental Health Center.
"Yeah, you get nervous riding the bus with a cup full of dirty needles in your pocket," Bucky says.
OAA's syringe exchange serves mostly opioid and methamphetamine users, according to Executive Director Christa Weathers. The exchange has seen an increase in demand for its services every year since it was founded in 2012, and meth is starting to tick upward, Weathers says. In 2015, 175 of 311 newly enrolled clients reported meth as their drug of choice. Most users are in their 20s or 30s.
Some kinds of addiction have a single smoking gun, she says, like the clear tie between prescription pill abuse and heroin addiction. But it's not clear why meth is making such a widespread comeback. "It's not an easy answer," Weathers says. "I think it's really complicated actually."
When new clients enroll in the syringe exchange, they fill out an intake form with some basic biographical details, including first drug used, age of first use and why they began using. Some clients share similar sentiments as Bucky, writing that they use frequently but don't feel it's out of a self-destructive impulse, or that they don't consider themselves addicted at all.
Others express how much their addiction has cost them in short, terse descriptions that relay a wealth of pain. One began using while homeless in Portland. A few started smoking meth at parties, until it became a daily habit. One person writes, "Other friends were using it and thought it would be just for fun ... I have practicly [sic] lost everything."
Most syringe exchange clients report that they began abusing substances while very young, often in middle school, and alcohol was generally their first substance of choice. One client described starting to sneak sips of alcohol at age 4.