Prescription for Addiction: Tackling Montana’s pill problem
Once you hear their stories you'll never forget them -- the woman who lost her sister, the addict who struggles to stay clean, the cop who can't keep up -- all caught up in an epidemic of prescription drug abuse.
Over the past several months reporters, photographers, videographers and editors at NBC Montana and the Missoulian have worked together to produce an eight-day report across all our platforms -- on the air, in print and online.
It starts with an inside look at the problem:
Fentanyl, Methadone, Hydrocodone, Lortab, Percocet – they’re pills commonly in medicine cabinets. The bottles make it clear -- take as directed. But half of the people who get their hands on these pills don’t have a prescription.
“Once they go out in the general public then they’re distributed elsewhere,” said Community Medical Center’s Dr. Marc Mentel. “It’s probably the deadliest medicine out there right now.”
Part of the problem -- most opiates start out legally.
“The main majority of these are actually prescriptions that are being prescribed,” said Missoula Police Detective Dean Chrestenson.
“There is this notion that these are safe medications because they were prescribed by physicians,” Mentel said.
Yet the assumption of safety is gone when opiates aren’t used to kill pain but rather to get a fix.
And the users aren’t who you would expect.
“Normally I’m used to dealing with rapists, murderers and robbers. You know, they’re not too hard to figure out who those suspects are,” Chrestenson said. “But now…my suspects are nurses, home health care providers, pharmacists, people that have an addiction.”
You don’t have to look far to find one of those people. Linda Williams was a pharmacy tech in Whitefish. She stole drugs from the Walgreens where she was employed -- because of a problem she says started with pain.
Some people start young. Like recreational drugs and alcohol, one of the first places Montanans encounter prescription drugs is among their peers. High schoolers NBC Montana spoke with said drugs are everywhere.
"Kids were giving them out in class, I've seen it," said Missoula high school student Gavin Crandell.
High school is where Heather Montes’ sister got hooked. It took just one pill.
“Sixteen is when the addiction started,” Montes said.
From there her sister spiraled out of control and beyond help.
“I went home and my dad said that she had passed,” said Montes. Her sister died earlier this year after taking methadone and drinking heavily. It was a battle that lasted over a decade.
High schoolers admit getting a stimulant like Adderall or Ritalin is easier than getting alcohol.
“You don't need a drug dealer to get pills, everybody's pretty much prescribed medication,” said Crandell.
And as some high school students progress to college the abuse progresses too. Students will use Adderall to study, but it can quickly open a door to other prescription pills.
“There's probably a casualness about taking prescription drugs,” said University of Montana student Will McGhion.
The University of Montana campus pharmacy is on the front line for prescription drug problems.
“We get phone calls on a daily basis asking for what the price is and what brand and what manufacturer we stock of certain drugs,” said UM Pharmacy manager Ken Chatriand. “Certain drugs do have a higher street value than others."
It’s something one man we talked to knows too well. NBC Montana is not identifying the man by name but he has lived a life among addicts.
“I’ve met many addicts in my 30-plus years of being an addict. I still fight it every day of my life and I will until I die,” he said.
Through his battle he’s seen them all. “When I look at addicts I see every kind of person there is. High dollar, no dollar, hard worker, work shy.”
It’s a broad range of people -- the trouble indentifying who is an addict makes the abuse difficult to track.
If you don’t think it’s serious ask Detective Dean Chrestenson.
“We started seeing it more and stating to realize the problem,” said Chrestenson.
Chrestenson works prescription pill cases full-time and he has more than he can handle. He typically caries 10 to 12 cases at a time.
“I could probably have double that, if I opened every report that was made to me, but unfortunately we can’t. We don’t have the manpower,” Chrestenson said. It’s a true sign of a problem that’s out of control.
“A green light was basically turned on or Pandora’s Box was opened that we started using opiates,” said Dr. Marc Mentel.
Over the next week NBC Montana and the Missoulian will have more on the people and problems presented above, as well as ideas for solutions from some of the experts.