Meth Effect: Undercover agents try to stem flood of meth into Montana


DEA officials say that they can chemically trace meth in Montana back to major production facilities in Mexico. (Drug Enforcement Administration)

Editor’s note: The flood of methamphetamines into Montana communities has left law enforcement, the courts and social services strained. Prosecutors report drug cases have clogged district courts. Child protection case numbers have soared as parents addicted to the drug neglect or abuse their children. Families of addicts report few options for helping their loved ones kick the substance. The Montana Meth Effect is an effort to tell the complex web of stories about communities coping with widespread drug use.

The report, produced by students at the University of Montana School of Journalism, works to put a face on the new meth user base and explain the effects of an uptick in amphetamine use across the state.  The staff is made up of audio, visual and web-focused students in a jointly convened class working to make audio stories consumable on social media. It is an experimental capstone class led by professors Jule and Lee Banville with support from the University of Montana Journalism School. Missoula Current will present the full report in installments over the coming days. You can also access the package online at metheffect.com.

As meth moved from a home-cooked business to an international drug trafficking system, the efforts to stop the drug have had to adapt as well.

Spokesman for the Montana Department of Justice, Eric Sell, said meth is, by far, the most common drug seen in investigations in Montana and federal and state law enforcement have teamed up to try and stem the tide.

Sitting in an unmarked car in a supermarket parking lot in Kalispell two undercover officers with the Drug Task Force officers said they can tell the source of meth simply by its color. Low-end or home-cooked meth looks dirty like salt and pepper. The Mexican drug, produced in high tech labs, looks like ice.

As the quality has improved, most of the illegal work dealing the drug has shifted from production to distribution. Drug traffickers move the pure meth up from Mexico into major cities like Seattle or Denver. They then transfer the drug to Montana by hiding it in vehicles.

“They literally put it anywhere in their car that they can,” said one task force member. “We’ve seen false bottoms in trucks, we’ve seen it stored in fenders, seen it just sitting in the middle consoles.”

A new way they’re hiding it is in axel grease and motor oil. Distributors will take packages, wrap them in electrical tape and individually package them in a quart of motor oil, thinking this will throw off the scent of drug sniffing dogs.

The FBI also reported that traffickers have become increasingly sophisticated in how they hide meth. Undercover agents in Missoula sounded impressed as they described one dealer’s efforts to conceal the drug in a five-pound propane tank.

“It was actually pretty neat,” he said. “These super savvy interdiction counselors were like we know there’s drugs in this vehicle, but we don’t know where. And they looked at this bottle for hours; they kind of narrowed it down to this one and realized it was too heavy for what it should have been.”

And where they found the meth was in the nozzle.

In Missoula County last year, the FBI said there were 757 drug-related arrest, and 115 of them were meth related.

Despite promises of increased security along the Mexican border, as well as President Donald Trump’s talk of a new wall, one FBI agent said the effort to stem the flow of drugs can only do so much.

“You take out one person,” he said, “and there’s somebody literally waiting in the wings to fill that void. And so, it’s a constant battle, but we’re doing the best we can with the resources we have.”

Reporter, audio producer Meghan Bourassa is studying radio-TV production at the University of Montana.