Daines hears local law enforcement’s plea for more resources, tighter southern border

Montana Sen. Steve Daines on Thursday heard the plight of western Montana law enforcement agencies who’ve become embattled with the methamphetamine trade.

“It’s overwhelming our communities,” Daines told reporters after the roundtable at the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office. “Law enforcement does not have enough resources to deal with this crisis in Montana.”

Sheriffs, deputies, detectives, National Guard officers and community coordinators from Ravalli to Lincoln counties offered the Republican senator a glimpse into the front lines of their fight with drugs, specifically meth. Many asked for more resources to both investigate and prosecute drug trafficking in their areas, as well as help rehabilitate the folks whose addictions have wrecked homes and children’s welfare. 

The timeline of meth’s rise, fall and re-emergence is consistent from different agencies. While home-cooked meth once ruled, statewide measures — such as restrictions on ingredients — put in place helped curb its supply in Montana. But in recent years, officials say meth from Mexico, stronger, cheaper and more voluminous than the “crank” made in the back of a car, has flooded communities again by way of the interstates 90 and 15.

And along with the new dealers comes new threats: Those pushing meth into Montana appear to be more inclined toward violence against police, and have been found to exchange weapons for drugs, Missoula County Sheriff’s Detective Jared Cochran said.

“Currently, I can’t remember a case where there aren’t weapons being traded in lieu of the drugs that are being distributed,” said Cochran, who is assigned to the FBI Violent Crime Task Force in Missoula. “And the weapons are not only being utilized for protection of the drug operations that are going on but they’re also being traded as a financial aspect to that.”

Some officials asked for further resources, while others said they would go to extraordinary measures to help close off the entry of drugs on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Ravalli County Sheriff’s Detective Scott Burlingham said he recognizes the immigration situation at the southern border is not his to fix. The drug problem at the southern border, however? He offered to donate his own vacation time contributing to law enforcement’s efforts there.

“I’ll search vehicles, sweep floors, I’ll clean toilets, I’ll walk the fence, I’ll stand guard if it stops a little dope from getting to Montana,” he said. “In the end, after all is said, the same people are always the victim. That’s the children. Always.”

One message from law enforcement certainly seemed to catch Daines off guard. Alleged drug dealers arrested in Montana sometimes have arrest warrants in other states, but then, Burlingham said, those states — California, he specified — won’t take the dealers back for prosecution. A similar situation played out in the case of Francis Crowley, who admitted to being exceptionally high when he partially buried a 5-month-old baby in the woods last year near Lolo. (The baby survived.) Crowley was wanted on warrant in Oregon, but officials on Thursday said Oregon wouldn’t extradite him back. 

Daines called the out-of-state warrant issue, essentially pitched to him as a lack of cooperation from agencies outside Montana, “shocking.”

“That is ridiculous,” he said after the meeting. “That was one of my takeaways today. We’ve got to go back and look at this issue.”

At the end of the meeting, Daines provided officials with packets full of available federal grants to assist with local resources. He said the meth issue requires a three-pronged attack: contacting youth early, enforcing the laws on the streets and treating those suffering from addiction. 

“We just have limited resources,” he told reporters. “We do not have enough resources to deal with this crisis.”