Montana Drug Policy Task Force Calls for More Treatment and Prevention, War on Meth 10/4/02

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In January, Montana Governor Judy Martz (R) announced the formation of a state Drug Policy Task Force to ponder the state's drug problems and its responses and to look for more effective solutions (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/219.html#montanataskforce). Top-heavy with representatives from law enforcement, victims' rights and drunk driving groups, as well as treatment professionals, the group met throughout the summer to devise a new plan. Last week, the group issued its final report, a strong call for increased attention to prevention and treatment, one that buys into the addiction as "brain disease" theory, but one that also includes significant old-style drug war components.

"The Task Force concluded that instead of 'getting tough on crime' related to alcohol, tobacco and other drug issues in Montana, we need to be 'effective on crime,' which means Montana needs to be effective in treatment and effective in prevention," said the report's executive summary.

Among the Task Force's recommendations:

  • Create a state drug czar "with the responsibility, authority, and resources to integrate the currently divergent alcohol, tobacco, and other drug control programs."
  • Go after underage drinking with stiffer penalties and other measures, such as requiring beer keg registration.
  • Budget adequate funding for and support for prevention programs.
  • Evaluate treatment programs for effectiveness.
  • Allow first- and second-time drug offenders "alternative programming" (drug treatment) in lieu of jail time.
  • Tighten drunk driving laws.
  • Reduce the number of parole or probation revocations for drug use by allowing for alternative, intermediate sanctions.
  • Meth War: Make being under the influence of meth a crime.
  • Meth War: Make the presence of a meth lab prima facie evidence of child endangerment or abuse.
  • Meth War: Give the state Highway Patrol new "interdiction abilities," increase its size and place a patrol member on each regional drug enforcement task force.
For drug reformers, the report is clearly a mixed bag. "I would like to have seen things approached from different perspective, but I was happy to see a lesser emphasis on law enforcement overall, said Vicki Peterson, a Missoula-based harm reductionist who consults with the state Health Department on injection drug use issues. "But when you deal with the Montana mindset, this is progress. The law enforcement lock 'em up isn't in there -- except with the meth," she told DRCNet.

Common Sense for Drug Policy's Kevin Zeese, who visited Missoula last month as part of the reformer-led Montana Drug Policy Summit, had a similar take. "Overall, there is a lot of sensible stuff there," he told DRCNet. "Prevention, treatment instead of prison, reducing parole revocations, those are all steps that need to be taken." But Zeese, too, criticized the proposed new anti-meth measures. "From visiting rural areas where meth is an issue, it seems to me that meth is the new crack. I mean that it engenders the same panic, the fear, the overreaction that resulted in those terrible crack laws," he said. "When we look back on this with meth, we'll see those same terrible mistakes repeated over and over again."

"There is a lot of hysteria over meth," Peterson agreed. "But we have to look at underlying causes, the poverty in this state. Hell, people want to feel good and meth makes you feel good," she said. "We need a real conversation about drug use in America." Peterson pointed out that Montana got only $125,000 in asset forfeiture revenues last year. "Speed freaks don't have any money," she snorted.

Neither Peterson nor Zeese thought much of the drug czar idea, with Peterson dismissing it as "brain dead," and Zeese arguing that "it has not been an effective tool anywhere in the country."

While Task Force member Jerry Archer, Deputy Chief of Police in Billings warned of the meth menace, he wanted mainly to talk treatment with DRCNet. "I think we all realized that if we don't do prevention and treatment, we can throw law enforcement resources at the problem all day and it won't do any good," said Archer. "We have to get more attention paid to prevention and treatment and that's that," he said. "That's why we suggested getting these guys under supervision some treatment instead of throwing them back in jail. They shouldn't get away with it 19 times, but we're looking at a financial crisis here and we need to look at mandated treatment instead of prison."

According to the Task Force report, Montana spent $256 million in 1998 on anti-drug programs, but less than 1% of that was invested in treatment and prevention. And therein lies a great big problem. With the state facing a $250 million budget deficit this year, any new funding is going to be hard to come by. And despite his talk about treatment, Deputy Chief Archer suggested that no one should look to cuts in law enforcement to make up the difference. Archer sidestepped a question about whether he would give up funds for treatment, noting that that police department is funded locally, not by the state. "But if you asked the Highway Patrol, I think the answer would be no," he conceded.

For Peterson, the state fiscal crisis is a clarion call for financial independence. "We need to work with our communities to develop goals, and we need to look for outside funding sources. Otherwise, we are at the mercy of the state, which is broke and can cut your funding with the stroke of a pen," she said.

"Funding is the key" for implementing the recommendations, Archer agreed, but warned that the state government and legislature would have to prioritize and that some recommendations would not make the cut.

One topic notably absent from the Task Force recommendations was marijuana. When asked if the Task Force had paid any attention to reform noises coming from north of the border and even within the state or whether it had considered decrim or legalization of marijuana, Archer told DRCNet that "we didn't recognize that as a viable way for us to reduce our drug problem." Most members believe marijuana is a gateway drug, he said. "It probably is a gateway drug," he added. "We did not feel that legalizing a particular substance was a good way to combat drug abuse."

While reformers at the Montana Drug Policy Summit were making the case for precisely that, the Montana Drug Task Force was, for the most part, embracing the now enlightened conventional wisdom that treatment is the answer. Next time, Montana drug reformers need to get a place at the table where the decisions are made.

The Task Force report and related docs may be viewed online at http://www.discoveringmontana.com/gov2/css/drugcontrol/default.asp.

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