Montana Needs Collaboration to Address Substance Abuse Crisis

Not a day goes by that a life in Montana isn’t destroyed by substance abuse.

It’s the teenager, murdered for ripping off the wrong person just to buy the next hit. It’s the habitual drinker who crashes a car on the drive home from the bar, killing his best friend. It’s the family member hooked on prescription pills, who took too many one day and will never wake up again.

Go to any community across Montana. Stop someone walking down the street, and ask them their thoughts on the substance abuse problem. Chances are you’ll likely hear the same answer: The status quo isn’t working — it’s time for something new.

I agree. That’s why my team and I at the Montana Department of Justice are doing something different.

In April, my office announced Aid Montana: Addressing the Impact of Drugs. The goal of this initiative is very straightforward: We want to get everyone on the same page to solve this problem.

It will be a collaboration of private sector, federal, state and local government, and everyone in-between, all working together to construct a “well-oiled machine” that can effectively address substance abuse in Montana. And most importantly, this “machine” will be a comprehensive strategy. We’re going to come at this from every angle.

While law enforcement will certainly be one approach, treatment, education and prevention efforts will be primary components to this strategy as well. We have to recognize this problem for what it is: a widespread disease. We aren’t going to jail our way out of it.

Over the summer, my office and other stakeholders are partnering with the Montana Healthcare Foundation to hold listening sessions across the state (the first was held last Friday in Butte) to gather the necessary information to formulate our plan. These listening sessions will supplement another extensive information gathering effort led by my office. Following the listening sessions, we will hold a substance abuse and addiction summit this fall in Helena to discuss the process for putting our strategy together. We will present a blueprint of our plan to the 2019 Montana Legislature.

To develop a thoughtful and thorough approach, we are working with other government agencies like the Department of Public Health and Human Service, and the Department of Corrections, as well as healthcare professionals, judges, educators, local business owners, and those who have experience with substance abuse in their own lives, all to ensure that we leave no stone unturned while searching for answers.

It’s naive to think that there is a “silver bullet” that will fix this problem. It’s also naive to ignore the complexity of this epidemic, thinking that it’s simply a matter of choosing a hodge-podge of government programs, combined with a “shotgun-approach” use of tax dollars, and it will magically be cured over-night. The answer will undoubtedly be a mixture of calculated public policy decisions, systematic cultural changes, and a heavy dose of time.

But while it’ll take a lot of time, energy, and resources to accomplish our goal, the cost of doing nothing is too great to ignore.

Ask any legislator involved in budget discussions and they’ll all largely agree: The largest drivers of government spending in Montana are, in some form or another, fueled primarily by substance abuse. It creates an enormous strain on our state budget, sucking up much-needed resources to fund reactive services that could otherwise be used for proactive programs that invest in our future.

From increased prison populations due to crimes like sexual assault, domestic violence, fraud and theft, to an increased volume of the youngest Montanans funneled into Child and Family Services, substance abuse is at the heart of the most costly services provided by state government. Combine the increased demand for tax dollars with lost economic activity due to a less productive workforce, and our state’s revenue picture looks worse and worse.

Calculating the financial cost of addiction is one measure of impact, but arguably the more harmful effects are those that impact quality of life.

Montana is an amazing place. Unfortunately, our state’s substance abuse problem has a drastic effect on the quality of life here in the Treasure State. The inability for an individual to live a normal day-to-day life as a result of addiction takes a heavy toll. And it doesn’t just affect those dependent on substances. It affects their family, friends, neighbors, and the communities that we live in. The consequences of the substance abuse epidemic affect all of us in some form or another, degrading the quality of living for each and every person who calls Montana home.

Solutions can’t come soon enough. My office won’t stop until we are certain that we’ve done everything possible to get this nightmare under control. And while there will always be those who allow politics to cloud their vision of what’s important, when it comes to addressing Montana’s growing substance abuse problem, we all must take the high-road. We must put politics aside, roll up our sleeves, and get to work. We won’t save our state from this disease unless we all work together.