Local leaders are considering ways to address the fentanyl and mental health crisis

Gov. Greg Gianforte met Thursday with local law enforcement, state officials and mental health and addiction treatment providers in Kalispell, where they discussed ways to combat the fentanyl crisis, and state health department leaders introduced a Safe Harbor program called the Initiative for the Montana Angels.

The initiative, currently in use in Yellowstone, Cascade and Lewis and Clark counties, will allow those suffering from addiction to access law enforcement services where authorities can connect people with treatment.

“The Angels Initiative is a partnership between the Department of Public Health as well as state providers and law enforcement agencies to help increase access to treatment for people in need,” said Ki-I McBride, Department of Health and Human Services (DPHHS ) Opioid Prevention Program Manager. “They can get help by going to law enforcement if they’re in possession of drugs and paraphernalia and have the ability to turn them in, get help and connect with a supplier.”

To address fentanyl overdoses, the state has boosted its Narcan program, distributing 50 percent more of the overdose-reversal drug each year since 2018, which local law enforcement and emergency responders use several times a week.

“Law enforcement in Montana has seized more fentanyl in the first six months of this year than in the previous three years combined … We need to come up with a plan to deal with this,” Gianforte said during the roundtable discussion.

Flathead County Sheriff Brian Heino said his office has seen a significant increase in fentanyl- and drug-fueled crimes, which he attributes in part to Flathead’s population growth. He also said fentanyl enters the region primarily through the postal system and would like to see a solution at the federal level.

“Our postal system essentially brings in drugs and drugs and they get delivered,” Heino said.

Flathead County District Attorney Travis Anner confirmed that about 70 percent of the law firm’s cases involve drug-related crimes, many of which involve property crimes and drug possession. He attributed the rise in crime in part to the pandemic, but also pointed to changes in the legislature since 2017 that reduced penalties for crimes, which he said had led to a progression of crime that might otherwise have been prevented.

“There is a lack of accountability in these early steps,” Anner said. “I think some accountability, some wake-up calls, at this level of crime, would be helpful, including some of these diversion programs.”

Local mental health and addiction treatment professionals have also been critical of the state’s response to multiple challenges, and Alpenglow Clinic Clinical Director Chad Kingery told the governor that inpatient treatment programs are difficult to operate without funding, which is desperately needed to address with the crisis.

“The aftercare program is what’s broken in this state,” Kingery said.

Kingery suggested reassessing the allocation of alcohol tax dollars to a wider range of treatment providers, rather than providing funding to just one county facility. He also highlighted how challenges in the current real estate market are affecting the ability to provide inpatient treatment, which would require a large facility.

“I can tell you that there aren’t many clinics that I can open, and there aren’t any employees who are perfect at what they do, that will ever generate enough revenue to afford the mortgage on a $2 million property,” he said. Kingery. “I think this type of data extrapolates the challenges of these amazing ideas that we have — and there’s no way to get there.”

Kalispell Mayor Mark Johnson was also frustrated with the city’s budget, which limits its ability to provide services and additional law enforcement resources within the municipality. State grants that would fund additional employees for two to three years would help in the short term, he said.

“In Montana, we’re way behind on ways to generate tax money for law enforcement,” Johnson said. “With budget constraints, we can only allocate so much.”

Gianforte told local leaders that his office will evaluate new programs and hopes to bring the Montana Angels Initiative to Flathead County.

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