Drugs in the valley
Missouri River Drug Task Force shines light on local drug usage and history
Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office captain Ryan Stratman is the commander of the regional Missouri River Drug Task Force. He recently provided an update to members of local media regarding the task force’s purpose and discoveries. Two deputies who often operate undercover also presented findings. The task force has been operating since 1990 and works toward “taking off the head of the snake” with regard to drug enterprises. According to an undercover office, they look for the person who is the “direct connect” to the person going out of state to procure the drugs.
The official mission statement of the task force is to “provide a collaborative federal, state and local law enforcement effort to identify, target and address those involved in drug trafficking, manufacture, and/or violence.”
Yellowstone National Park draws more than just typical tourists. According to one undercover task force member, 2013 brought the first real influx of heroin to the area via two groups from Flint, Michigan. These groups wanted to experience Yellowstone and, while vacationing, discovered a market for the China white heroin they sold in Flint and set up shop. Although they were discovered and charged, nearly all felonies in Gallatin County now have a connection to drugs, with most of those having a “distinct link to meth or heroin.”
The rate of reoffence for people hooked on heroine is 98 percent, according to task force representatives.
One of the undercover task force members attributes much of the national heroin crisis to the creation of OxyContin. Made with oxycodone, it is twice as powerful as morphine and closely chemically related to heroin. Until the drug’s release in 1995, many physicians were reluctant to prescribe opioids to patients who were not terminally ill because of the drug’s addictive qualities. According to The New Yorker, OxyContin was introduced with a solid marketing campaign to change the minds of reluctant doctors. “The company funded research and paid doctors to make the case that concerns about opioid addiction were overblown, and that OxyContin could safely treat an ever-wider range of maladies. Sales representatives marketed OxyContin as a product ‘to start with and to stay with,’” a The New Yorker article stated. Some patients found the drug to be a vital Band-aid for chronic pain. Many suffered debilitating withdrawals when between doses. According to the Centers for Disease Control, almost 218,000 people died in the United States from overdoses related to prescription opioids between 1999 and 2017.
Task force representatives back the American Society of Addiction Medicine statistics with their real-life experience with users: four out of five people who try heroine started with prescription pain killers.
As a result, there is no socioeconomic trend with those who use heroin. Also, many people addicted to heroin switched to the drug when pushback from the opioid crisis came into full swing. With the recent attention on the opioid crisis, there has been a shift in medicine with pain no longer functioning as the fifth vital sign, as it did in the 1990’s when the opioid crisis began.
As a result, the over-prescribing of opioids or addictive pain relievers is being curbed. Doctor shopping or going from doctor to doctor with a painful injury to attain pain medications should also be curtailed thanks to federal funding for prescription drug monitoring programs that became available in 2003. Still, many people who were accustomed to dealing with pain management by legal means had prescriptions reduced, suffered withdrawals and turned to heroin.
Task force members discussed findings from an online study done on heroin users. What do they like to do when they are high? Mow the lawn, go grocery shopping – decidedly normal things.
“A lot of time people don’t start using heroin to get high because they’ve already formed that addiction through opioids, they start using to feel normal,” an undercover task force member said. “You really cannot be a functioning meth addict, however, you can be a functioning heroin addict.” He went on to explain that heroin addiction is not easy to spot and can be found in anyone from “age 14 to 80”.
Further complicating the opioid epidemic is the surge of fentanyl and Carfentanil, which are heroin’s synthetic,–and far more dangerous—cousins, according to the undercover agents. Mostly manufactured in Asia, fentanyl is 80-100 times stronger than morphine. Carfentanil used to be utilized to tranquilize grizzly bears and, according to the Department of Justice, is a “dangerous new factor in the U.S. opioid crisis.” It is 10,000 times more potent than morphine and 100 times more potent than fentanyl. With heroin, fentanyl and Carfentanil looking similar, those who use the drug have a hard time determining appropriate dosage.
Further complications now arising in Canada show that the cartel has now created a product which takes the form of weed but is actually Carfentanil, according to the undercover task force member.
Also contributing to the influx of drugs, especially in rural communities, is the dark web. This is the part of the internet that is only accessible with special software and is supposed to allow users to remain untraceable. Still, some are being found. Federal agents arrested a nurse in California and charged her with selling 20,000 opioid pills via the dark web. Task force representatives said the dark web allows for these drugs to be purchased in Asia and mailed to the United States. The task force works closely with the United States Postal Service and United States Department of Homeland Security.
Methamphetamines continue to be problematic in the in Gallatin County, although recently in surprising ways. The street cost has gone down significantly as the supply increases. Mexican cartels are increasing efforts with harder drugs since their market control of marijuana has been so depleted. The U.S now controls much of the market in the United States with the high quality marijuana that is produced in bulk on U.S. soil. Many users understand they can acquire methamphetamines significantly cheaper if they purchase from the street, however many are deciding to make it themselves, according to the task force.
Task force representatives made the comparison of the recent trend in methamphetamines to people who brew beer at home – it’s cheaper to buy a beer at the store, but they have control of the flavor with home brews. Some meth users function similarly. They do not mind the added effort or expense of finding the camp fuel, lithium batteries or Draino, or the cumbersome endeavor of acquiring the hundreds of Sudafed pills needed to make an ounce of meth – as long as they get to control the flavor of the drug.
Still, many understand the volatile state of the concoction as it “cooks” and avoid cooking it in or near their homes. Task force representatives stated that most meth labs are discovered after an explosion and subsequent fire. As one officer pointed out: “little bottle, big boom.” This is called the “one pot method” of making methamphetamines.
Three individual one pots have been found at fishing accesses in the Gallatin area in recent months. Task force officers asserted that the public should be cautious when removing garbage from the outdoors – particularly at trailheads and fishing accesses. Law enforcement should be notified of anything like two-liter soda bottles or large Gatorade bottles that contain a chalky liquid inside.