By Tim Leeds
FORT BELKNAP - Jerry Nystrom of the Tri-Agency Task Force paused during a PowerPoint presentation about methamphetamine, on a slide showing a collection of common household chemicals on a countertop, to make a point to a crowd of about 60 people.
"The reason I'm showing you this is so you'll realize this is a community problem now. There could be a meth lab in the kitchen next to you, in the camper next to you, in the car in front of you," he said. "This is a common problem. This is everybody's problem because it's happening right next to you."
Nystrom was speaking at a workshop sponsored by the Fort Belknap Chemical Dependency Center along with other treatment centers, law enforcement agencies and the Fort Belknap tribal courts. The workshop told people about the drug, about labs used to manufacture the drug, and about treatment of addiction. It explained what people can do to fight meth.
"Everybody should learn about it," Fort Belknap resident Catherine Halver said before the daylong workshop started Tuesday. "Everybody should know about it and know how to control it."
The message on how to fight the drug was clear: The community needs to unite.
"It has to be community-based or it isn't going to work," said Linda Short, clinical director of the Chemical Dependency Center. "It takes numbers, it takes effort and it takes unity to put a dent in something like this."
Jeanette Snodgrass, a counselor at Rocky Mountain Treatment Center in Great Falls, said the community has to take action.
"This drug is taking your community hostage and it's up to you to decide what to do about it," she said. "If this community remains in fear, this drug has won."
Moses Dionne Jr., chief of the Fort Belknap Tribal Police, said the problem will continue to escalate unless the community takes action.
"The meth problem has gotten worse," Dionne said.
He told the people at the workshop that if they have any suspicion that people are involved in meth, to contact law enforcement - the dispatch center, his local office, the Tri-Agency Task Force, anyone they are comfortable calling.
"We can't do it alone. It's going to take the public helping," he said.
Fort Belknap police officer Elgin Johnson echoed Dionne.
"It's affecting the whole community, but with you guys' help we can make a dent in it," Johnson said.
Robert Pease, a former Bureau of Indian Affairs criminal investigator, said the problem is not limited to reservations or to rural Montana.
"It's all similar in almost every community in the United States, not just Indian communities, all communities," Pease said. "Meth is one of the most hated problems in communities. It has virtually ruined many, many lives."
Pease told the crowd about the first and only time he took a life in his 38 years in law enforcement. Pease spent nearly an hour in temperatures hotter than 110 degrees trying to talk a meth addict out of a building he was in. When he tried to wave another officer over to spell him because he was nearly fainting from the heat, the suspect reached for the rifle he had sitting against the building beside him, Pease said. Pease fired his weapon, fatally shooting the suspect.
"I thought I was old enough and tough enough where these things wouldn't bother me," he said. "I was wrong."
Charlie Bear, manager of the Fort Belknap Chemical Dependency Center, said use of methamphetamine impacts everyone in north-central Montana in some way or another. Everyone is affected whether they know it or not, he said.
"This is a big problem in our area. We all deal with it in one way or another," he said.
Henry "Hank" Doney, a counselor at the Chemical Dependency Center and an organizer of the workshop, said in an interview that he was very pleased with the turnout at the workshop, and he hopes the attendance will grow at future workshops. Fort Belknap plans to host another in the next few months, he said.
"This is probably the biggest workshop we've ever held," Doney said. "People are realizing what a problem it is."
Lorilane Walker of the Chemical Dependency Center said methamphetamine seems to be attracting younger and younger people. Originally the center was primarily treating people in their 20s or 30s, but now often has to treat adolescents, she said.
Nystrom, of the Tri-Agency Task Force, said dealers are actively recruiting new dealers, often using children to start new business.
The common method is to give a child a free sample of the drug, maybe a gram worth about $100, Nystrom said.
The child gets hooked on the drug and comes back for more, but now has to pay for at least part of the supply. The dealer might give the child 2 grams and tell the child to keep 1 gram, sell the other and bring back the money.
"The next thing you know the little kid's a big drug pusher," he said.
Several people at the workshop talked about the spread of methamphetamine to the very young.
Snodgrass said a 15-year-old girl she is counseling started using meth when she was 12. The girl was talked into trying it by her brother, Snodgrass said.
The girl was addicted by age 13, and had moved on to stealing cars by age 14, Snodgrass said.
Officer Johnson said the youth of some users highlights one of the dangers of the drug. Methamphetamine enhances the user's strength and energy, making that person almost impossible to restrain, he said.
About a week ago he took a junior high-age boy, weighing 110 pounds at most, to the juvenile detention center in Chinook. Johnson said he can bench-press close to 300 pounds, "but I couldn't hold him." It took two detention officers and another Fort Belknap police officer helping Johnson to restrain the youth.
"People on methamphetamine, I kid you not, are 10 times stronger than normal," Nystrom said.
Walker said she can easily recognize meth users. They tend to be extremely thin, are very jumpy and agitated. During conversation, they might change to a new subject 50 times in 10 minutes, she said - and they smell.
Methamphetamine shuts down openings in the body, forcing it to find some other way to excrete waste, she said. The way the body does that is through the pores and through hollow hair follicles - people sweat out their own urine, she said.
Snodgrass said treating methamphetamine addicts is difficult, and takes different tactics than treating other forms of addiction because the addiction itself is different.
The Rocky Mountain Treatment Center is in the process of designing a meth-specific treatment process, she said.
She said her own experience with meth began when she and her 13-year-old daughter, an infant daughter and a cat lived in a house she rented near Seattle in 1990.
The first indication she had that something was wrong was when her cat started acting oddly. Then her formerly well-behaved infant became cranky.
She said she had the septic tank pumped out, to see if there was something wrong there. The tank was full of hypodermic needles, she said.
She still doesn't know what effect the meth-infested house had on her children, Snodgrass added.
"All we can do is pray," she said.
She became a counselor after her nephew was killed by a drunken driver in 1996, she said. Her intent was to work with people in the Montana state prison convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol, but "God got in the way. God said, 'That isn't where I want you,'" she said.
She ended up treating meth addicts in a Cascade County treatment facility instead. Working with the inmates taught her about meth addiction in her 3 years there, she said.
She said the 28-day treatment process typically used for alcohol and other addictions doesn't work for meth addicts. It takes 45 days to get over the physical effects, and another six months before the addict starts getting mental clarity. The addict needs help or counseling for about two years, she said.
She said one major need in the state is having places for people to stay while they're trying to recover. There are some recovery houses, including in Great Falls, Helena and Billings, but more are needed, she said.
If the meth addict is willing, treatment can work, Snodgrass said.
"I know a lot of addicts who are starting clean," she said.