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Judge, deputy county attorney discuss drug problem, solutions

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POLSON — Of the 30 cases on District Judge Jim Manley’s June 10 docket, all but two involved drugs — mostly methamphetamine, or alcohol, or both. 

“I was like most people and didn’t realize what a problem we have in this community, on this reservation,” Manley said about his introduction to the court when he first took the bench. “There’s a whole ‘nother world we don’t see.”

He’s learned from the Mission Mountain Drug Task Force that most of Lake County’s drugs come from the Mexican cartels. 

“They target the reservations. The cartels don’t care about politics, they care about sales,” Manley said.

Those drug sales motivate local addicts to break into homes and steal items that can easily be pawned for money. While the community may assume these are intentional acts, Manley understands it’s the addiction that is driving them to do whatever is necessary to purchase their next fix.

The way the prevailing criminal justice system has been handling drug abusers is saying they shouldn’t be doing it, and the way you stop it is punish them, according to Manley. 

But Manley wondered if what the criminal justice system was doing was helping or hurting; America has about four percent of the world’s population, but the United States has 25 percent of the incarcerated people in the world. 

“When I saw for the first time the magnitude of the problem we’re facing, I had a number of questions — Has anyone figured out a better way to do this?” he asked. “It’s the biggest problem in this community, even though nobody knows about it.”

Manley began studying the problem and became kind of obsessed.

“What I learned was that everything I knew about drug abuse was wrong, and most of it was backward,” Manley said.

Manley said there’s a sheriff in Arizona who uses shaming and punishment as ways to prevent drug abuse by making the inmates wear pink underwear, live in tent cities and work on chain gangs.

“Is it working? No, it’s not working,” Manley said. “Every year it gets worse and worse and worse — and more expensive.”

The cost for each mid-level drug case, including police, prosecutors, court, incarceration and treatment, averages $200,000, according to a study done back east, Manley said. That is a chunk of taxpayer money, even in Montana where the cost may be lower.  

If the justice system continues doing what it’s doing now, about 78 percent of the drug abusers will return to the justice system within two or three years, according to Manley. 

While researching studies in an effort to find solutions, Manley came across the Rat Park study in the book “Chasing the Scream” by Johann Harl, a 100-year history of the war on drugs.  

The Rat Park study was motivated by an experiment where a rat is put in a cage, alone, with two water bottles. One is just water; the other is water laced with heroin or cocaine. The rat becomes obsessed with the drugged water and comes back to it over and over until the rat dies. The advertisement claimed, “Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It’s called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you.”

When Canadian psychology professor Bruce Alexander saw the ad, he thought the experiment was odd because the rat was all alone in the cage with nothing to do but take drugs. So Alexander and his crew built Rat Park — a haven for rats in a big cage with tunnels, cans to sleep in, lots of rat friends and toys. Alexander and his group found that rats with “good lives” didn’t want to take drugs. They tried the drug water, but none became heavy users and none died.

If the study is relevant to human behavior, the hopeful outcome is that 85 percent of those who try a drug will not become an addict if they are involved in an active lifestyle with healthy relationships.

“As it turns out, one of the largest obstacles towards being law abiding and substance free is an anti-social way of thinking about things, an anti-social mentality,” said James Lapotka, deputy attorney for Lake County.

Lapotka is one of the key figures fighting drug crimes alongside Manley. 

“Almost all of our property crime, bad checks, burglary, storage facility and car break-ins is almost all directly related to methamphetamine or prescription pill abuse,” Lapotka said. “Since Steve Eschenbacher’s election (as Lake County District Attorney), he is dedicating me to solely prosecuting impaired driving and drug cases.”

But there’s a major holdup since he said it takes the Montana State Forensics Science Division of the Department of Justice in Missoula about nine months to test a baggie of meth, a pipe or a syringe.

The crime lab does fingerprint testing, drug, DNA and serology as well as tool testing to match bullets and ballistics and analysis. The lab maintains breath alcohol testers called Intoxilizers throughout the state and does blood testing for DUI cases. 

That’s one of the reasons the lab is so backed up, Lapotka said. Four years ago the Montana Legislature passed a law allowing law enforcement to take a blood sample for DUI cases if the arrested party refuses to give a breath sample to determine their blood alcohol concentration.

“By getting a driver’s license in Montana, you give implied consent to provide a breath sample. In the event you are pulled over for a DUI, law enforcement can apply for a search warrant and obtain a blood sample,” Lapotka said.

“It’s made DUI prosecution more efficient. It’s a lot harder to defend a DUI case with a blood sample.”

In methamphetamine cases, Lapotka said the backlog may give a drug user time to rack up three or four more charges before the first case goes to court. 

“We need to address the growing drug addiction problem in our community,” he stated. 

Meth and prescription pill misuse are the largest problems Lake County faces, according to Lapotka, but there’s a new line of defense on prescription drug use — the Montana Prescription Drug Registry. Prior to this, a common practice allowed folks could go to a doctor, get a narcotic prescription, go get it filled and then repeat the process utilizing different physicians and pharmacies. Now through the computer network, doctors and pharmacists are talking to each other to prevent multiple prescriptions.

Whether the addiction stems from prescription abuse or illegal street sales of narcotics, those sentenced are often considered for addiction treatment programs rather than traditional incarceration.

“It’s our intent to get drug users the tools they need to lead a productive life,” Lapotka said.

The Montana Department of Corrections offers drug treatment programs for women at Elkhorn in Boulder, operated by Boyd Andrew Community Services; and Nexus for men in Lewistown, operated by Community Counseling and Correctional Services. 

“The programs are seeing success, but they didn’t get more money (from the legislature),” Lapotka said. “Elkhorn is better and cheaper than prison.”

Between April 2007 and July 2012, 79.5 percent of everyone admitted to Nexus and 86.1 percent of everyone admitted to Elkhorn completed their nine-month stay as sentenced.

When sentencing for DUI convictions, the legislative penalty for a person’s fourth DUI — at which point the crime is a felony — is 13 months. 

People convicted of a felony DUI may be considered for the WATCH program, a residential treatment facility in Western Montana.

“You earn your way out of it. Most people make it in nine months, but you have 13 months. Terms of probation are up to five years. If you get another DUI after that, you are sent to prison for five years,” Lapotka said.

Although drinking isn’t illegal, “they can’t stop driving,” he said. People who drive when they’ve been drinking place the innocent motoring public at risk. 

One of the greatest tools in enforcing sobriety is a SCRAM bracelet.

SCRAM, short for secure continuous remote alcohol monitoring, records the wearer’s perspiration every 30 minutes, and determines the alcohol level, if any, similar to a Breathalyzer.

It’s expensive, though, about $300 a month. Most of the people who are in a situation where they need a SCRAM bracelet unfortunately can’t afford that, according to Lapotka. 

“District Court is pursuing alternative sentencing options and the possibility of drug court, investigating what would work best for our community,” Lapotka said.

Lapotka, Manley and others working in chemical dependency and adult probation and parole recently visited drug courts in Billings and Butte.

There are about seven drug courts in Montana. The Billings drug court operates for two hours a week in a district court room with a team of experts, according to Manley. 

The drug abusers can’t graduate until they are clean and sober, gain the job skills and education to support themselves, and have a job.

“Drug court is a subset of a regular court,” Eschenbacher said. “It’s a legal tool to help (addicts) get off drugs.”

Drug courts waive some procedures, such as speedy trials, and they are mostly for people who want to get off drugs.

Their rate of recidivism is about 17 percent, Manley said.

“The mode for these drug courts is to have ongoing accountability for people, doing drug tests every day and holding them accountable, forcing that sobriety in the community. That yields long term sobriety,” Lapotka added.

Grants for a drug court will be applied for in the spring of 2016. In the meantime, the group advocating for a drug court will be volunteering their time. 

“The good news is,” Manley said, “there are answers.” 


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