There’s a sense that drug use in Montana is rampant, punctuated by shocking Montana Meth Project billboards and things like Missoula’s contentious Initiative 2, which made adult misdemeanor marijuana offenses the county’s lowest law enforcement priority.

But it may be worse than we think.

Forbes reported last week on the futility of the war on drugs and singled out “America’s Drug Capitals,” cities like New Orleans, Baltimore and San Francisco. And, uh, Missoula?

The story cited the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration’s most recent household survey, which reveals that 13.8 percent of households polled in Montana’s Region 5—Flathead, Lake, Lincoln, Mineral, Missoula, Ravalli and Sanders counties—reported using illicit drugs in the prior 30-day period. That puts us at the top of the list. By comparison, northwest Iowa reported the lowest rate, at 4.8 percent.

Twelve percent in our region reported using marijuana in the prior 30-day period, also the highest rate. Central and southern Utah reported the lowest rate, at 3 percent.

So, what the hell?

Some local experts say it could be a mix of factors, such as weather, regional isolation, the relatively high veteran population or stressful jobs like mining, logging and ranching. Ken Taylor of the state’s Chemical Dependency Bureau posits: “One of the things that we know from research is that if you have high transitions in mobility—if people are moving in or people are moving out—there’s an increased risk for substance use with a tendency toward abuse. Certainly western Montana has seen a lot of growth in the past 10 to 15 years, so that’s a contributing variable.”

But Taylor’s also among those who doubt the accuracy of the results. He wonders if Montana’s “small numbers problem” contributed to skewed results. Mark Long, chief of the Montana Narcotics Bureau, says northwest Montana’s position atop the list “just doesn’t seem to jibe with what we see, that it’s any worse there than anywhere else.”

Long also points out that the situation could be even bleaker if pharmaceutical abuse factored into the survey. He says there were 320 deaths related strictly to pharmaceuticals in 2008, compared to just 5 associated with meth.

The experts are still trying to decide what to make of the data and our area’s new “Drug Capital” title. Perhaps we do, in fact, use a disproportionate amount of illicit drugs. Or perhaps Montanans are just way more honest when answering surveys.
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