AG Tim Fox details plan to tackle Montana’s “frightening level” of substance abuse

Attorney General Tim Fox detailed his new Aid Montana plan with City Club Missoula on Monday and what steps his office is taking to address substance abuse – an issue he believes has reached “frightening levels” in recent years with triple-digit increases across a number of categories. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

An estimated 64,000 Montanans over the age of 18 suffered from a substance abuse disorder in 2016, though the state mustered the resources to treat less than 10 percent of them.

And that, Attorney General Tim Fox said Monday, isn’t good enough.

“When we talk about substance abuse, the conversation is often focused on opioids, but it’s important that we don’t limit our focus to one or two substances,” Fox said. “Substance abuse and addiction are driven by a wide variety of substances, both legal and illegal, and we need to talk about all aspects of the problem.”

Fox detailed his new Aid Montana plan with City Club Missoula and what steps his office is taking to address substance abuse – an issue he believes has reached “frightening levels” in recent years.

According to the State Crime Lab’s annual report, Montana saw a 375 percent increase in meth found in postmortem cases from 2011 to 2017. Over the same period, it experienced a 324 percent increase in meth found in DUI cases.

Figures related to other substance abuse issues have also seen a dramatic increase.

“This report confirms what we already knew – Montana is in the midst of a substance abuse crisis,” Fox said. “The astronomical increase in meth and heroin offenses have placed added strain on the crime lab, as well as on our courts, our jails, our foster care systems. Child abuse and neglect cases have gone through the roof.”

Saying the state can’t wait any longer to act, Fox and community stakeholders have gathered to explore state-based solutions aimed at policy. The issue zeroes in on both drugs and alcohol and looks at everything from treatment to early intervention, education and monitoring.

The resulting report was released last September and will serve as a blueprint moving forward, starting with the 2019 Legislature.

“It has helped us better identify how state resources are used to target substance abuse and identify gaps and inefficiencies,” Fox said. “We now have a more complete understanding of how our state can better align efforts to enhance the necessary communications and improve the outcomes for those suffering from addiction.”

While the Attorney General’s Office has partnered with other agencies including local government, the Department of Corrections and the Montana Health Care Foundation, Fox said government alone can’t solve the problem.

Rather, he said, it will require partnerships with the private sector and area nonprofits.

“We’re building off the efforts of many Montanans who have been working on this problem for years,” Fox said. “But the statistics show that what we’re doing simply isn’t working and isn’t enough. It took many years to arrive where we are, and it will take many years to reverse course.”

While alcohol use remains the primary factor in Montana’s elevated rate of substance abuse when compared nationally, illicit drugs are also a concern. The state ranks 10th nationally in illicit drug use and 12th in binge drinking.

Fox said drug courts have emerged as one of the most effective tools in addressing substance abuse, though the courts face challenges in both capacity and unpredictable funding.

“One of the things we’re looking at is trying to stabilize funding sources for existing and new treatment courts, and increase the capacity of drug treatment courts,” he said. “Prevention is also a key factor for our Aid Montana program. But no state tax dollars currently fund prevention efforts in Montana.”

Fox said his office is looking to establish a state-level funding stream for prevention and education efforts. He’s also looking to tighten the state’s DUI laws by eliminating the so-called “look-back” factor, which softens the penalties if one’s DUI offenses were spread apart.

Fox, who has seen 40 bills signed into law during his time in office, said it’s time for communities, lawmakers and others to step up and solve what he sees as a state epidemic.

“While there will always be those who allow politics to cloud their vision of what’s important, when it comes to addressing substance abuse and co-occurring mental health disorders, we all must take the high road. We must set politics aside, roll up our sleeves and get to work.”