By Ron VandenBoom
Methamphetamine has overtaken cocaine and marijuana as the number one drug of choice in the six counties and one Indian reservation that compose the Tri-Agency Drug Task Force's area of responsibility.
"It's easier to get meth than any other drug," said Shawn Van Vleet, a full time agent with the Task Force who works out of Havre. "Havre has a tremendous supply of methamphetamine compared to a lot of other towns."
Van Vleet said that other towns of similar population probably also have problems with methamphetamine, "but the state in general has a problem with methamphetamine."
Statistics provided by the Montana Board of Crime Control indicate that arrests state wide for all other illegal drugs except hallucinogens have declined between 1995 - 1999, while arrests for methamphetamine increased from 178 in 1995 to 305 in 1999. Of the 305 arrests in 1999, 209 were men and 96 were women.
The statistics also show that during the 1999/2000 recording period, a total of 72.97 pounds of the drug was confiscated by Montana's drug task forces.
Montana is currently disposing of 50-60 meth labs a year, said Al Brockway, head of the Montana Board of Crime Control. "It takes 18-20 hours to dismantle a lab."
It's a phenomena that has developed only within the last two or three years and owes much of its vehemence to what Hill County Sheriff Tim Solomon describes as a natural progression that begins in Mexico and moves up the west coast to Washington and then across the Hi-Line by Highway 2 and the BNSF Railroad into Montana.
"That's the route they have all taken," Solomon said, while singling out Yakima, Wash., as the community most responsible for drug importation into the Havre area. "That's our primary source."
The Task Force operates in the counties of Liberty, Hill, Blaine, Phillips, Chouteau, Judith Basin, and on Fort Belknap Indian Reservation and it has not only seen an increase in the possession and use of methamphetamine, it has also seen an increase in its manufacture.
One of the reasons for the increase in manufacturing, Van Vleet said, is the high price of imported methamphetamine and imported quantities are limited and go fast. He also suggests that local users and distributors are afraid of some of the outsiders dealing the drug and feel they might be dangerous.
Street meth will sell for $100 a gram and there are 28 grams in an ounce.
"Which if you have a gram a day habit, making an ounce will last you about a month," said Mark Stolen, assistant chief of police for the Havre Police Department.
Local users believe they can make it themselves cheaper, especially if they use two or three grams a day.
"And you can make that with a pretty small amount of material or precursors," Van Vleet said.
Van Vleet said most of the labs the Task Force is finding in and around Havre are small and capable of producing only grams and ounces. None of the larger operations capable of producing meth by the pound have so far been discovered.
Van Vleet suggests that it's most common in the Havre area for producers to make enough of the drug to provide for their own needs while selling some of the drug to friends. This allows them to earn enough money to pay for the chemicals they already used and buy more for the next batch.
"So they're not really losing money," Van Vleet said.
At least that's the plan.
"You don't see too many Porsches running around Havre," he said.
Van Vleet said most producers are also users and the more they produce, the more they will consume.
As a money making proposition the small time cooker is not likely to strike it rich.
"When you start using the product yourself, usually you're behind in money because you owe somebody," Stolen said.
The manufacture of methamphetamine requires producers obtain quantities of chemicals that are easily available in Havre. But purchasing such chemicals could raise a retailer's eyebrow.
"People know what's going on in this town with methamphetamine," Van Vleet said. "When people come in asking for certain items that can only be used for certain things, they know what's going on."
Van Vleet, Stolen, and Solomon all admit they have worked to help educate retailers in the Havre area about what to look for and to keep a sharp eye out for large purchases of certain chemicals or the same person making several purchases of the same chemical in a short period of time.
Drug dealers, of course, are aware of the difficulties associated with acquiring chemicals and will only rarely fall into the trap of buying large quantities or buying frequently from the same retailer. It is also common to have friends purchase small amounts at different retailers in order to avoid suspicion.
But large quantities of chemicals are not necessary to produce grams or even ounces of meth.
"You can put a meth lab into a small box," Van Vleet said. "You don't need more than a couple of jars, some tubing, a filter or two, a couple of funnels and you've got a lab."
"But even small labs can still be dangerous," Stolen added, noting that only two years ago the Montana Legislature passed a precursor law making it illegal to possess the chemicals to make meth.
"So even if they're not successful making it," Stolen said, "it's still illegal to try."
And just as dangerous because the chemicals used are still highly flammable and toxic.
Van Vleet said that as far as methamphetamine production in this part of Montana goes, "we're just touching the surface."
He emphasizes that anybody using or cooking methamphetamine is a danger to law enforcement and everybody else, adding that they are more prone to violence and generally extremely paranoid.
Paranoia is just one of the side effects of meth use.
Uniformed officers conducting routine traffic stops could find themselves facing a life or death situation if the driver happened to be high on meth at the time, Van Vleet said.
Solomon said prisoners brought to the Hill County Detention Center will be evaluated for intoxication on arriving and if necessary isolated.
"A lot of that is for their own protection because they may end up hurting themselves," he said.
Prisoners on methamphetamine can become suicidal when coming down from a methamphetamine high, "especially when they find themselves in jail," Solomon said.
Isolation and the possible need for medical attention all add to the cost of law enforcement. But tight tax dollars means there is little chance law enforcement will see more money to fight the war on drugs any time soon.
The Tri-Agency Drug Task Force receives between $200,000 and $250,000 annually to fight the war along the Hi-Line and this small force, according to Stolen, represents the biggest, most important thing law enforcement in this area can do to fight narcotics pro-actively.
Working mostly undercover, the Task Force draws from all law enforcement agencies within their jurisdiction. This includes personnel who for various periods of time may work an investigation in plain clothes in an area outside their normal jurisdiction.
All drug related cases are referred to the Task Force and task force involvement is also valuable in aiding investigations that transcend the jurisdictional boundary lines of Indian reservations.