An interim panel of Montana state legislators voted unanimously on August 27 to recommend appointing a "drug czar" to coordinate drug prevention and treatment programs in the state. The move came just two days after outgoing Gov. Judy Martz (R) convened a conference on methamphetamine, which officials there define as the state's most serious illicit drug of abuse.
The state's current, haphazard policy toward the illicit stimulant, sometimes manufactured in informal home meth labs by users who cannot obtain a reliable supply, is filling Montana's prisons and treatment beds, state officials said during the conference August 25. "This is one of the hottest topics in Montana right now," Gov. Martz told the group of about 30 officials and cabinet members assembled in her reception room. "This affects state government in a broad way."
According to the state corrections department, 85% of women prisoners are in for meth-related offenses, and one Missoula drug treatment facility reported 90% of its beds are taken up by meth-heads, the conference heard.
The vote to create a cabinet-level "drug czar" came in the Montana legislature's joint Children, Families, Health and Human Services Interim Committee and was the long-delayed first fruit of a Montana Drug Policy Task Force empanelled by Martz 2½ years ago in January 2002. That task force was heavily stacked toward law enforcement, with members of the criminal justice apparatus holding 10 of its 18 seats and treatment and prevention reps only six seats. One doctor was appointed to that panel, but no members of drug reform organizations or drug user representatives (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/219/montanataskforce.shtml).
"The task force completed its work in 2003," said Sen. Trudi Schmidt (D-Great Falls), from the other side of the aisle. "Appointing a person to oversee the problem statewide was the number one recommendation. But no legislation came of it," she told DRCNet. "We have a pretty significant problem here with meth. Here in Great Falls, people were noticing these meth busts every day, and I eventually carried a resolution from the people I represented to the legislature saying that the state needs to step in here in a more comprehensive way, so yes, this goes back a long way," she said.
The new position will be called the Commissioner of Drug Treatment and Prevention, with Montana legislators recoiling from the "drug czar" handle given the post by the Billings Gazette. "It's not a 'czar,'" said Schmidt, "but this person would be based in the governor's office and would deal with all sorts of state agencies. We have the environment, because of pollution from the labs, we have corrections, health and human services, labor, child welfare, and yes, law enforcement is in the mix. Lots of times social workers are dealing with these people and bringing law enforcement along with them."
The Commissioner post voted for by the interim committee is aimed at coordinating prevention and treatment activities, not law enforcement, said one committee member. "I see this position as a coordination point for all the programs, the treatment centers, the grants," said Rep. Edith Clark (R-Sweetgrass), whose remote, unpopulated district where the plains meet the Rockies borders Canada's Alberta province. "I see it as an information repository. There are treatment and prevention activities going on all over the state, in the communities and in every part of the state government, but we don't have one place to find out what's going on," she told DRCNet.
Under the proposal, the drug czar would be appointed by the governor, but would report to the legislature as well. The czar would be charged with compiling a directory state programs, funds and grants and work on budget proposals for drug prevention and treatment statewide. Something has to be done or the criminal justice system will burst apart at the seams, said Rep. Clark. "We have 10,000 unfilled felony warrants, and 90% are drug-related," she moaned. "Law enforcement has much better tools to do its work, but we want to make their job easier, and that means treatment. Recidivism is so high with this drug, and 60-day treatment programs are not set up for that."
But crafting harsher criminal penalties for meth users isn't the answer, she added. "We've talked about increasing sentences, but what I am hearing is that we need to treat the problem, that imprisonment is not the answer. They just get out again and go right back into the same pattern. We looked at criminalizing the agricultural system, with laws restricting anhydrous ammonia, but you can't penalize a whole industry because there is a criminal element stealing the product they use on their fields."
But while Montana politicians appear to be beginning to move beyond punitive drug policies and toward prevention and treatment, they have yet to consider -- in fact, are barely aware of -- the notion of harm reduction. "I haven't heard of harm reduction," said Sen. Schmidt, sounding intrigued at the notion when it was briefly explained to her. "Well," she considered, "Montana is not exactly known as a progressive state, but we can't keep our hands in the sand."
The proposal must pass the 2005 legislature. If it does, the committee hopes to have someone in the post by next fall.