MISSOULA, Mont. - Doctors and police in Missoula are calling it Montana's silent epidemic -- the problem with prescription drug abuse and the crimes that come with it.
There are so many criminal cases to tackle in Missoula, the police department has a detective dedicated full-time to the caseload.
Missoula County's evidence warehouse is full of problem pills. Missoula County Sheriff's Detective Jason Johnson pulled out a small sample -- piles of prescription pills that almost looked like candy, seemingly harmless.
They're prescribed by doctors to help but unfortunately too often they harm. Johnson said most of the drugs he put out on display were confiscated in coroner's cases.
Those pills will be disposed of, turned over to the DEA. But they're just a small portion of what's sitting in people's medicine cabinets, drawers and shelves at home with a possibility of falling into the wrong hands.
It's a fact Missoula Police Detective Dean Chrestenson knows well.
"It was busy enough four years ago that we saw this epidemic and it wasn't anything new. It's just we started seeing it more and starting to realize the problem," said Chrestenson. "That problem really hasn't gone away."
Chrestenson specializes as a full-time prescription drug diversion detective. It's a first for the police department in an attempt to slow down an increasing problem with unlikely suspects.
"Just local everyday people. All ages, all genders, all financial backgrounds," said Chrestenson. "There's really nothing to say this type of person is the only person that's going to do drug diversion and abuse painkillers and narcotics."
For the four years Chrestenson has spent dedicated to the pill problem he estimates he has opened at least 400 cases. He knows he can't stop them all, it's not an easy crime to fight, but it only takes one pill to charge somebody with a felony.
"Some people think you've got to have a whole bunch, you've got to have 30 or 40, 100…it really just takes one."
Dr. Marc Mentel at Community Medical Center jokes that he wishes he could put Chrestenson out of work.
"He'd probably be mad at me for saying I want to get him out of his job," said Mentel. "He does a great job."
Or at least reassign him.
"Get him out of diversion of prescription drugs," said Mentel.
Through his work as a physician, Mentel has seen the dangers of prescription drug abuse. While putting Chrestenson out of work isn't a likely scenario, the two have started to talk about ways doctors and law enforcement can team up.
"Obviously law enforcement, medical people, therapists, counselors, the in-house facilities…the outpatient treatment, all of it is key to combating the problem," Chrestenson said.
And they agree it starts with awareness.
"The best way to fight that silent epidemic is to make sure the public is aware of it," said Mentel.
"I hope that just everybody continues to make this a priority," Chrestenson said. "Let's try to shut down this silent epidemic."
For more on this story visit our partners at the Missoulian.