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Old 12-06-2004, 11:34 AM
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Default Article: Anti-meth activists want to put meth at the top of the 2005 agenda

Groups push for meth prevention

By KIM SKORNOGOSKI
Tribune Staff Writer



Montana's Legislature has tinkered with but not tackled the growing problems caused by methamphetamine, the addictive stimulant that arrived in the state in the mid-1990s.

Now anti-meth activists want to put meth at the top of the 2005 agenda by supporting the state's first treatment facility specifically for meth abusers.

Success this time around might stem from a new alliance that joins an active group of Lewistown residents and a nonprofit company that runs the prerelease center in Butte.

For the past year and a half, they've been laying the groundwork for a new meth treatment facility in Lewistown.

Community Counseling and Correctional Services Inc. says Lewistown's central location makes it the ideal spot for the state's first meth treatment facility.

Should the Legislature make funding available, the company hopes to offer treatment for prisoners by late spring if it remodels an existing building or by late fall if it builds a structure from scratch.

To win the contract, CCCS would have to deliver the lowest price per prisoner per day. It may see some competition from other companies that run prerelease centers throughout the state.

Regardless of who gets the contract, Mike Thatcher, the head of CCCS, promises to lobby hard for a treatment program.

"This needs to happen, whether it's us or someone else," Thatcher said. "What we've done in the past isn't working. We're throwing away money locking people up. We've got to stop putting our heads in the sand."

The state spends millions on the back end of the problem, incarcerating meth users and caring for children taken away from addicts. But little is invested in prevention and treatment.

The treatment that is being offered isn't meth-specific and doesn't compensate for the years it takes to kick the drug.

Previous efforts

After the 2001 legislative session, Gov. Judy Martz and Attorney General Mike McGrath created a state task force to study Montana's meth problem and suggest solutions for the next session.

Its 100-page report quantifies the problem and offers solutions including a new state drug czar position and regional treatment facilities.

Battling a tight budget, a House committee in 2003 killed a proposal to spend $900,000 to set up two meth treatment homes for women. Other bills made sentences tougher for people charged with operating meth labs.

Seeing that meth prevention and treatment weren't surviving the session, Democratic Sen. Trudi Schmidt, a member of Great Falls' meth task force, created a bill in 2003 to do a second study to continue the discussion. It passed.

Many of the same ideas are back on the table this session.

Earlier this year, the Department of Corrections requested a $33 million budget increase that included $2.1 million to launch a pilot project to provide treatment for inmates hooked on meth. The program would provide 40 beds and treatment spanning an average of nine months.

Community Corrections Division Administrator Mike Ferriter, who likely would oversee any new meth treatment programs for the Department of Corrections, said a new treatment facility isn't in the department's budget. It's up to legislators to propose, pass and fund a new treatment program.

"I'm sure it's going to be a costly program," Ferriter said. "We certainly aren't in a position to cut prison beds or have staff to do this with our current budget. Hopefully people will think it's a good investment."

With Democrats taking over the Senate and the governor's office, Schmidt said it's hard to predict what legislators will support in the upcoming session. However, addressing methamphetamine addiction seems to have universal support.

Sen. John Cobb, R-Augusta, has authored a bill to start a meth treatment program.

"We can't keep paying for things on the higher end. Prevention is key," Schmidt said. "Whether there's money to fund a treatment facility ... it's expensive, and it's needed. If it will pass, I have no idea. There are a lot of demands.

"But I think everybody is aware of how difficult the meth problem is."

Widespread impact

Law enforcement officers estimate that more than 80 percent of the inmates in Montana's prison committed meth-related crimes, whether it's stealing to pay for the drug or cooking and selling it.

Crime has grown more dangerous for officers and victims, as methamphetamine makes addicts paranoid and violent.

Effective treatment would help law enforcement and the overflowing prison system, Ferriter said.

But beyond crime and criminals, other state agencies are seeing the effects of meth addiction.

Family services is overburdened as more and more children end up in foster care because their parents are addicted to meth and land in jail or cook meth in their homes and endanger their children with chemicals.

Educators say children of addicts come to school tired and hungry, making it difficult for them to learn.

The toxic concoction can ravage a user's body. Meth use can lead to strokes, cardiac arrhythmia, stomach cramps, shaking, anxiety, insomnia, paranoia, hallucinations and structural changes in the brain.

Addicts who inject meth are susceptible to deadly diseases such as hepatitis B and C and AIDS.

Those who eat or inhale the drug find black pits on their teeth, because meth eats away at the calcium coating and causes jaw clenching and teeth grinding. No amount of brushing can prevent the teeth from turning black and falling out in chunks leaving dangling slivers behind.

People who cook the drug face the biggest health risks, including cancer, short-term and permanent brain damage and immune system and respiratory problems.

All those health problems are foisted on taxpayers as meth addicts land in jail or give up their money, jobs and families to feed their addiction.

The Department of Environmental Quality has to deal with the toxic meth waste dumped in rivers and parks and down drains. And the Department of Housing is burdened with cleaning up hazardous fumes that seep into the walls and carpet when an addict makes meth in public housing.

More than 500 people attended a series of educational forums in Great Falls sponsored by the local meth task force. Since then members of the task force, including Mayor Randy Gray and District Judge Kenneth Neill, have urged legislators to prioritize meth treatment.

Beating addiction

As the use of meth mushrooms in Montana and the West, more and more research indicates that it could be the toughest drug to kick.

Meth's 12-hour high is so powerful that users quickly become addicts. Unlike many other drugs, methamphetamine alters the brain's chemistry — a change that makes users crave the drug for two to five years after they quit.

Yet the state's treatment programs last months at most.

The drug kills brain cells in the frontal lobe, making it difficult for addicts to process information and make decisions.

Meth addicts have a short attention span, and current treatment programs cram in more information than they can process, said Dr. Dan Nauts, director of the Benefis Addiction Treatment Center.

"We've always done things backward," he said. "If you give people eight hours of treatment a day and they can only digest one hour, you're wasting your time."

Meth also alters the chemicals in the brain that motivate people and make them feel pleasure and satisfaction. Many addicts take medication for depression.

When a person uses meth over a period of time, the drug gets trapped in their fatty tissue, where it can remain for years before seeping back into the bloodstream.

The former addict can have drug "flashbacks," making it all the more difficult to fight meth cravings.

"It's almost like you're treating someone who has had a stroke," said Marci Dardis, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Treatment Center. "There's definite brain damage."

Dardis saw effective long-term treatment when she worked with a pilot program in Washington state. The program diverted people from jail for treatment that spanned three to six months.

Dardis saw a 60 to 70 percent success rate among the people she worked with.

"Long-term is most definitely the answer and has got to be our focus if we hope to have any success in treating meth addiction," she said. "Our focus has got to be on the addict."

Lewistown plan

In planning the facility in Lewistown, CCCS designed the treatment program knowing the challenges of beating meth's hold on addicts.

Depending on funding, the company hopes to remodel the Bureau of Land Management building near Lewistown's airport at a cost of roughly $1 million or build a new $3 million facility in the same part of town. The BLM building is expected to be vacant soon.

Considering that 60 women in the prison system could go into a long-term meth treatment program, Thatcher said the 40-bed pilot program that the Department of Corrections pitched is like "putting a Band-Aid on a hemorrhage."

So even if funding is available for only 40 beds, the CCCS would build big enough to expand to 80 beds.

Though many people charged with violent crimes are addicted to meth, the program would take mostly prisoners charged with drug possession or selling meth.

Treatment would last an average of nine to 12 months based on what's worked in other states.

Once released, the addicts would be placed in a transitional program to ease them back into their communities. Thatcher hopes to set up apartments in which addicts would have some supervision and guidance so they don't fall back into their old friend groups and risky behavior.

Thatcher hopes the pilot treatment program will prove to legislators that treatment works and that they'll create similar treatment facilities across the state during the 2007 Legislative session.

Community support

More than 100 people have attended two community meetings in Lewistown about the proposed meth treatment facility. City Manager Kevin Myhre said the project has overwhelming support.

CCCS also has visited with Lewistown bankers, hospital and medical professionals, senior citizens, pastoral groups, law enforcement and the Chamber of Commerce.

Soothing concerns, the building would be near the airport and away from residential neighborhoods. The facility would be fenced, and inmates would be allowed out only for medical emergencies.

Lewistown Assistant Police Chief Brad Doney said the facility presents few security concerns for the public. Having seen the effects of meth in the region, he believes a new approach to the issue is necessary.

"The way we're dealing with this problem doesn't seem to be working," he said. "Somehow we've got to come up with some kind of plan. Anything at this point that might work better than what's been happening, I think we should explore."

The company's reputation and aggressive efforts for community support has earned the backing of the Fergus County Port Authority.

"The big carrot to our community is the jobs and the amount of money that would be spent on goods and services," Port Authority Vice President Bret Carpenter said.

A 40-bed facility would create roughly 30 jobs. Doubling the number of beds would mean as many as 50 jobs.

Knowing the economic benefits, the city and the Port Authority are working hard to help CCCS deliver the lowest bid. Carpenter said the community is willing to offer practically free rent and is working with state and federal agencies to clear any hurdles.

Local dentists and doctors would help provide medical care at the treatment facility.

But it's not the economic boost that has many Lewistown residents supporting the treatment facility.

"I don't really see it as benefiting our practices, but I do see it as a need for central Montana and the state as a whole," Lewistown dentist Dale Chamberlain said. "We see something that needs to be done to help other human beings."

Up to Legislature

While the past two Legislatures faced budget deficits, lawmakers this time will be working with a surplus.

But deep cuts made in previous sessions mean many state agencies will be vying for more money in 2005. Legislators will have their hands full answering the Supreme Court's demand to better fund education, and many Republicans are calling for tax reform.

While state agencies won't be volunteering to cut their own budgets to fund methamphetamine treatment, many are lending support to the idea, knowing it will help lower burgeoning costs to their own programs in the long run.

"This is the first time in my career where people from all professions are all cooperatively saying that we need to take a shot at addressing this problem," Thatcher said. "We can't keep locking people up. We've got to great rolling on treatment programs."

Ferriter, the community corrections division administrator, said the need for meth treatment is obvious to anyone working in corrections, and as residents see it impacting their communities they are pressuring their legislators for change.

"All communities in Montana are impacted by this, and legislators are going to be looking for different approaches here," he said. "I'm optimistic."
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