BILLINGS — According to the Montana Department of Health and Human Services (DPHHS), the percentage of people aged 12 and older who report misusing opioid pain relievers in the past year was higher than the national average. In the U.S., it’s at 3.4%, and in Montana, 3.9%.
It's a statewide epidemic.
"The people who are poisoning our communities know that and are preying on that,” Jesse Laslovich, the Montana U.S. attorney, told MTN News on Wednesday. "It's so easy to get."
In Montana, the reservations have become flooded with opioids, and Laslovich said drug rings are a known problem—specifically on the Crow Reservation.
“We anticipate, unfortunately, just based on the trend of our fentanyl cases that we’ll ultimately have more fentanyl cases that we’ll be prosecuting versus the methamphetamine cases. And certainly, that is the case in Indian Country, where we have addiction issues," Laslovich said. "They’re targeting those areas in a big way. Which is why we’re being as aggressive as we are to try to hold people accountable.”
According to Montana DPHHS, opioid use is the primary driver of drug overdose deaths in the state of Montana—but it’s a problem even more prevalent in the state’s indigenous communities.
"There’s just so much of it and there’s too much demand,” Laslovich said.
On Tuesday, a Lodge Grass woman pleaded guilty in federal court to trafficking meth and fentanyl in a multi-state drug ring centered on the Crow Reservation. Since August, at least five others have pleaded guilty to similar charges.
Laslovich is on a mission to combat the problem. He says one common denominator on the Crow Reservation is a group known as "Spear Siding".
“We have a variety of those cases connected to Spear Siding. It’s not a business, it’s a drug-trafficking organization that we are attempting to bring down. I can’t get into a lot of the specifics. What you’re seeing is the changes of plea that are occurring as a result of that investigation. We anticipate more to come," Laslovich said. "At the end of all this, once it’s resolved, we’ll be able to tell the complete story about what happened. But this was at multiple locations that we pursued late last summer. Dedicated a lot of resources to it."
But criminal prosecution is just one part of the solution.
The National Indian Board of Health is also taking aim at the problem, now giving away free boxes of Naloxone, or Narcan, to tribes nationwide thanks to money from a global opioid litigation settlement.
Tribes are eligible to receive free boxes of the emergency opioid overdose medication each year for 10 years, and boxes will be shipped to a tribal pharmacy, Indian Health Services, or a recipient designated by the tribe.
"It’s quick and easy to use and it’s saving lives," said Jace Dyckman, an employee of RiverStone Health, on Wednesday. "We tell everybody it should be a part of your first aid kit."
Dyckman is a prevention health specialist at RiverStone Health in Billings, which also offers Narcan to anyone free of charge.
“I think the tribes are seeing a lot more opioid use than they’re used to," Dyckman said. "If (Narcan's) available and they have it there, they’re going to be saving a lot of lives."
It’s a multi-pronged solution to a problem that impacts so many on a daily basis.
"I think we’re making progress," Laslovich said. "Is there more to be done? No question. And we’re looking forward to doing that work."
To learn more about how to apply for the free Naloxone, click here.
To get in contact with RiverStone about free Narcan, call Dyckman at (406) 651-6419 or Erica Jarussi at (406) 247-3227 or visit the clinic, located at 123 S. 27th St. in Billings.