BILLINGS — Many of Yellowstone County’s top officials were in the same room Thursday, continuing work to tackle an issue crucial to Billings and all of Montana: substance abuse.
Many Billings health and law enforcement organizations agree that drug abuse is the No. 1 problem in the city. It has been for years, but it’s worse now as drugs find their way into every corner of our community, including inside the Yellowstone County Detention Facility.
"People are creative with how they try to get drugs inside," said Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder. "We’re able in most cases to head it off, but once in a while it gets through. It’s such a critical part of people’s lives that they’ll do anything."
The numbers are staggering. In an interview with MTN Thursday morning, Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen said meth is still king. The state saw a 100 percent increase in violations from 2014-2018. But the number of fentanyl overdose deaths is also up over 1,000 percent since 2016.
"Already this year we’ve seized 111,000 dosage units," Knudsen said. "I don't think it's too much to say it's enough to kill every man, woman and child in the state."
Linder says the jail is his most critical mission right now, and getting substance abusers help instead of incarcerated is key.
"We have a 434-bed jail, and right now we have 560-570 people in there," he said. "We'll do whatever we can do to divert people from the jail, and then on the other end, when people get out of jail, that they have a goal or some kind of help, getting the continuum of care they need. That’s what Substance Abuse Connect, or SAC, has done for us."
Substance Abuse Connect is made up of just about every major group in the county that deals with the crisis. Founded in 2017, they announced some successes at a Thursday press conference, including a new Homeless Outreach Team.
"They have served over 170 clients, and 71% percent of those have moved to recovery and housing and/or received treatment services," said Billings Police Chief Rich St. John. "And keep in mind, this was not happening a year ago."
School District 2 Superintendent Greg Upham spoke about the need for SAC programs in schools.
"We are in a war, no doubt about it," he said. "When I see the way our youth are targeted, I just shake my head."
Rimrock Foundation CEO Lenette Kosovich summed it up her feelings on the mental health crisis she believes has grown because of an increased presence of drugs in the community.
"The wheels have fallen off," she said. "Things are more in a higher crisis situation, and so the need for SAC has never been greater."
That’s why so many were in attendance Thursday. SAC is on track, but there’s much more to be done.