Tracking down the traffic behind Montana’s growing meth habit


Once there was a methamphetamine addict who had a beautiful teen-age daughter. She was everything a mother could want: beautiful, intelligent, talented. A truly exceptional girl. And after meth, she was the second most important thing in her mother’s life.

There was also a young girl in the town of Corvallis, a small, close-knit farming community that celebrates family, 4-H and God in equal measure. The girl had a $100-a-day crank habit that she wanted not to quit, just to curtail. So she went from smoking it to injecting it into her veins, a more efficient method that reduced her costs by half.

Then there was what another female meth user recently said to an undercover cop: “If you felt the needle going into your vein, you’d realize it was better than any man you’ve ever had.”

These stories from the front lines come courtesy of Ravalli County Detective Jim Chinn, just one warrior in a legion of officers across Montana and the West who are seriously outmanned in their war against the growing plague of methamphetamine production.

Meth is a highly toxic and powerfully addictive drug—most experts say more addictive than heroin, and some say instantly addictive—that affects the central nervous system and can cause its users health problems as diverse as acne and liver cancer, tooth decay and hepatitis C, hair loss and AIDS.

It is typically produced in clandestine labs that can be easily set up just about anywhere: a home, barn, motel room, chicken coop. Farmers have found covert labs in the rarely used outbuildings on their own land. Forest Service law enforcement officers have discovered labs in remote areas of national forests. And, increasingly, Montana cops are busting meth labs in secluded areas from the Flathead to the Bitterroot, from Great Falls to Butte.

It is the new scourge of the West, and despite the money spent on drug task forces and additional officer training, methamphetamine cooks are always ten steps ahead of the law. Because the problems posed all along the trail of traffic that feeds Montana’s growing crank habit—where it comes from, who’s using it, where it goes after its users are dead or in jail—are much more complicated than you might think.


Meth or crank, biker crank or speed, was relatively cheap when it first became widely available in America during the 1960s. “At that time, cocaine was the primary drug of choice, excluding marijuana,” says Detective Chinn. “But over the years the production of meth has become much simpler.”

Indeed. Today, anyone can set up a meth lab. The primary ingredient, ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, is also the main ingredient in over-the-counter cold medications. The mixing agents are also easy to get, though individually and in combination they’re so toxic it’s hard to imagine that someone could inject them, even in tiny quantities, and live to do it again: acetone, rubbing alcohol, toluene, ether, sulfuric acid, methanol, salt, lithium, anhydrous ammonia (farm fertilizer), sodium hydroxide (lye), red phosphorous, muriatic acid, iodine, trichloroethane (gun scrubber), sodium metal.

The equipment is standard stuff you’d find in any kitchen or garage: Pyrex dishes, jugs, bottles, aluminum foil, paper towels, blender, tape, hotplate, coffee filters. The recipes can be found on the Internet.

In a recent experiment, Chinn sent his secretary into Hamilton with $100 and instructions to buy everything she would need to set up a cook site. She was back in less than two hours, having purchased everything on Chinn’s shopping list at K-Mart, Safeway and Quality Supply.

The fact that meth as become so easy to make has brought about two important changes in Montana’s drug market, Chinn says: It has driven down the price of the stuff, which in turn has increased the demand, and at the same time it has driven cocaine prices down since people were turning to meth as their inexpensive drug of choice. Call it capitalism at its worst.

In the past few years, meth has worked its way up and out of southern California’s “super labs,” where meth is produced in quantity, and has spread to the Pacific Northwest—particularly Washington—east to Idaho and Montana and into the nation’s heartland.

In Montana, meth production has followed a business pattern typical to the state: Where California meth producers are turning out pounds—and making huge sums of money in the process—Montanans cook up meth in small mom-and-pop operations, earning not the big bucks made in producing pounds, but the small, quick cash earned from turning out ounces.

Still, despite what you see in most of the local media coverage, Montana’s small-time labs represent only one front in a two-front meth war. There is also the southern front—one that encompasses not only the California super labs, but also the Mexican traffickers who cook it up by the pound and bring it into the U.S. via well-established cocaine, heroin and marijuana smuggling routes.

From the labs in Mexico, meth makes its way across the border to California, then on to Seattle and east by car or truck to Montana. According to Max Williams, a Bitterroot Valley resident who used to work with the Oregon Drug Interdiction Team, dealers smuggle their product, conveniently enough, by car. Most smugglers tend to stick to small, two-lane roads, like Highway 97 through California, and the east-west corridors of Highway 84 and Highway 20 through Oregon. Interstate 5 through California and I-90 through Montana are other popular routes, for those smugglers gutsy enough to ship their goods on high-traffic areas. Together, these routes form the Northwest’s crank pipeline.

Despite the dense nexus that makes up Montana’s crank corridor, though, it’s still the small cook sites—the first front—that have captured the time, money and energy of local cops. And there’s a lot for them to work on.

In the Flathead Valley, where meth labs have been sprouting like morels after a forest fire, Mike Meehan is less concerned with the international traffic than he is with ridding northwest Montana of its meth labs. Meehan is the supervisor of the Northwest Drug Task Force that includes Lincoln, Flathead, Sanders, Mineral and Lake counties, where meth lab busts have become a regular feature on the nightly news. Which begs the question: Why the Flathead?

“At the risk of sounding boastful,” says Meehan, “we aggressively went after them. I don’t think we have any more than any other part of the state. We’ve just gone after them.”

What the task force has done is contact owners of pharmacies, hardware stores, chain stores—anyplace that sells the ingredients for methamphetamine production—and clued them in about sales that should be considered suspicious. For instance, one gallon of 7 percent tincture of iodine will treat the hooves of 1,500 horses. But a sale of four or five gallons to one buyer is a red flag. Meehan says his task force also has contacted ranchers who store anhydrous ammonia on their property as fertilizer and asked them to beware of theft.

That kind of outreach seems to be paying off for the Flathead and its surrounding counties, says Meehan. Last year, the task force busted 39 meth labs; this year, to date, the task force has taken down 13.

“We’ve had a real significant decrease lately,” he says. But he’s quick to add that the problem may never be truly beaten. “We’ve got a meth problem and we always will have,” he says. “We didn’t have a meth problem till about three or four years ago. I don’t think it’s peaked. We’re not going to stop it. We’ve come to the realization that illegal drugs will always be here.”

The costs associated with methamphetamine production in Montana are enormous and probably can’t be added up in any meaningful way. There are the costs of DEA training for first responders and waste processors at meth labs; the costs of clean up ($6,000 to $7,000 for a typical operation); and the costs of processing and disposal ($280,000 in Montana alone since last October). Then there are the costs of treatment ($139.43 a day per patient at one local clinic); and the unquantifiable costs of crime and the effects on families, communities and the environment.

“Meth affects all of us,” Meehan says. “It’s not a victimless crime by any means.”


Just ask Buddy. Though he’s currently not using, Buddy has had his go-round with methamphetamine and it’s left its mark on his face, which, despite his relatively young age, is lined like a road map.

And it’s left a trace of paranoia. Despite repeated assurances that nothing in this story will identify him in any way—not the use of his real name, his age or where he lives—Buddy speaks quickly about meth as if his words will be spoken too fast for recording. He says little anyway, clamming up when he sees the reporter’s notebook come out.

Meth was once a cheap product, he says. And because of that, demand in Montana soared, especially since the other drug of choice, cocaine, was more expensive. For a while, meth was the working man’s coke, he says. “It was $20 an ounce, then it went to $100, just like that,” he says, snapping his fingers.

But prices began to drop again, primarily because of the super labs that were producing volume and exporting to the Pacific Northwest. Where it once sold for $15,000 a pound, Chinn says, “we’re now hearing about $9,000 or $10,000 a pound.”

In the Bitterroot, both men say, meth sells for $100 a gram, but in the tri-cities area of Washington, it sells for $900 an ounce. There are 28 grams in an ounce, so do the math. At those prices, buyers can turn their $900 into $2,800 simply by buying in Washington and selling in Montana. Buyers also can cut meth with other ingredients, some toxic, some not, and further boost their $900 investment to $5,600. Chinn says prices are falling even now, with meth selling in some places for the comparatively low price of $400 an ounce.

Nonetheless, there’s always someone who’s willing to pay, and they each have their own reasons. Though chronic meth users can sometimes stand out, bearing the telltale signs of emaciation, edginess and paranoia, it would nonetheless be a mistake to say one user is like any other. As cops and case workers both point out, meth use cuts across all lines. Female users like it because it suppresses appetite. Teen-agers like it because teen-agers like to flirt with dangerous things. But there’s no common thread that runs through Montana’s crank habit. Urban bikers, rural teen-agers, retired white collar workers, the employed and the unemployed, people who beat their spouses and people with no criminal records, men, women, white, black, brown—methamphetamine is a seductive, euphoric drug and there’s no predicting who will be drawn to it.

Buddy started snorting crank when he was a teenager. But today, regardless of falling prices, he is trying to stay clean. Meth has nothing good to say for itself, he says. In its street form, it has no legitimate use. Marijuana, reputed to help glaucoma and cancer patients, and even heroin, are “medicines” compared to methamphetamine, he says. “It’s the worst garbage ever created.”

It’s also difficult to stop using. Unlike heroin addicts, who have methadone to help them kick the habit, or alcoholics, who have Anabuse, there is no medical treatment to help methamphetamine addicts, other than antidepressants to help ease the depression that goes along with abstinence.

But in Montana, where the social safety net is largely woven of family, friends and neighbors, there is, surprisingly, help for meth addicts.

It’s called the Montana Chemical Dependency Center, though some Montanans will remember its old name: Galen. Located in Butte, the MCDC annually treats between 800 and 1,000 Montanans suffering from some form of substance abuse. Of those, 43 percent are methamphetamine addicts, according to director Dave Peshek. And of that 43 percent, fully half have been sent there by the courts. That makes treatment a real challenge since people ordered to accept treatment generally aren’t as receptive as addicts who seek treatment on their own.

Treatment for meth addiction consists solely of abstinence, says Peshek. At MCDC there are no locked doors. “There’s a lot [of patients] with legal problems, but we have no locked doors so people are free to leave, unless they have some legal restriction,” he says. For those people, treatment is considered “forced voluntary.”

“Meth is actually not that difficult to come off of,” Peshek says. There are no physical withdrawal symptoms—no delirium tremens, for example, no nausea or sweating, just a craving for the euphoric rush that meth gives. “Which is not to say it’s not dangerous.”

Snorting or injecting toxic substances will, over time, lead to irreversible brain damage. “It mimics a mental illness,” Peshek says. “When I say ‘mimics,’ I mean it actually becomes a mental illness.”

That’s why MCDC staffers try to set up their patients with post-therapy case managers in their own communities. But that’s where Montana’s social safety net begins to fray. Few towns in Montana have the mental health clinics that people need when they leave MCDC. The problem is especially acute on Montana’s Indian reservations.

But aside from the mental scars meth leaves, there are also the physical ones. Smoking meth eats away the enamel from teeth, says Peshek, and can cause mouth cancer. “It just destroys teeth and lungs. But Montana is not a smoking state, Montana is an IV state.” Thirty percent of intravenous meth users develop hepatitis B or C, or HIV, with “the big complication” being the harm done to the liver.

Add to that the fact that 85 percent of MCDC’s meth patients are unemployed. “You can imagine the kind of triggers that creates,” Peshek says. There’s a direct line from unemployment to frustration to methamphetamine, for some people, he says. “That’s why we’re trying to provide people with more than just dealing with their addiction.”

There is no “cure” for methamphetamine addiction, Peshek says, and MCDC’s success rate is hard to gauge. “Success rate is a real interesting term,” he says. But he can come up with one statistic: About 74 percent of the meth addicts at MCDC complete the abstinence treatment. Still, no long-term studies on the effectiveness of the treatment have been carried out, at least not yet.

And Beyond

Ken Poteet is the regional supervisor for the Montana Department of Justice, Division of Criminal Investigation in Missoula. And as he points out, meth labs are dangerous in more ways than one. Not only do they pose a steep chemical risk to the people who make, smuggle and ultimately consume the stuff, but the lethal waste produced can end up almost anywhere.

“The toxic waste that goes along with manufacturing this drug,” he says, is a particular cause for concern, and in extreme cases, alarm. Every pound of meth produced yields five pounds of waste that can be toxic, explosive, corrosive, flammable or reactive. Red phosphorous, for instance, is highly toxic. Ethyl ether poses an extreme explosive threat. Anhydrous ammonia is highly flammable. “And that’s been disposed of all over,” he says. “Even if we get a small lab, it presents a huge risk.”

When meth cooks use rental property, as was the case last year near Victor when a man was arrested for cooking meth at his girlfriend’s rented trailer, the landowner can be held responsible for clean-up. Permanent liens can be placed on property where meth waste was dumped directly into the soil, septic tank or irrigation ditch as a forewarning to potential future buyers.

Ask around, even casually, and you’ll hear tales of meth waste discoveries made by innocent people caught unaware. Like the woman in Oregon whose new home had a funny smell to it. She thought it was leftover from the previous owners who had dogs and cats. But the smell never went away, regardless of how thoroughly she cleaned. Finally, becoming suspicious, she called the local police department. She and the officer tore off the Sheetrock from the living room walls to find insulation saturated, sagging from the absorption of meth waste left behind by the previous occupant.

But if meth labs pose a problem for many Northwestern towns, cities and rural areas, they’re also a kind of growth industry for others. Like Kip McGillivray, who packages meth lab waste before sending it on to its final resting place near Puget Sound.

McGillivray works for SI-McStay, a Smelterville, Idaho company that comes in and helps the cops clean up busted meth labs in Oregon, Idaho and Montana. When we caught up with McGillivray, he was getting ready to head out to Kalispell, where his 1,091st meth lab of the year awaited cleaning.

“Cleaning” is perhaps the wrong word for what happens at a meth lab after a bust. Usually, the person who ends up with the clean-up responsibilities is the landowner. What SI-McStay does is process meth lab waste for safe disposal—and they do it on call “24/7/365,” McGillivray says. Business is so brisk that he was on the job moments after he said “I do,” at his wedding. “I got married and five minutes after I got married, I was on the road,” he says.

SI-McStay contracts with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to package and remove lab waste brought out to them by the DEA-trained police officers who do the real dirty work of removing toxic waste from labs that are so incendiary cops are advised not to take photos inside with flash bulbs.

But McGillivray, who accepts the stuff from the cops outside, fully outfitted in head-to-toe protective gear that includes a respirator (“There’s never a time when you don’t wear a respirator”), hasn’t exactly drawn light duty either. In five years on the job, he’s seen dead bodies, automatic weapons, booby traps, pipe bombs. “I’ve seen all that,” he says. “I almost got blown up.”

McGillivray worries about his own health, exposed as he so often is to dangerous chemicals. Plus he has a 2-year-old son and pregnant wife to think about. But he gets two physicals a year, and practices the DEA training that stresses safety. “I can’t stress enough the safety of this,” he says.

He and his colleagues package up the waste products by category: corrosive, flammable, toxic, etc., put it all in 55-gallon containers and truck it under the watchful eye of the U.S. Department of Transportation to Philip Services Corp., a licensed hazardous treatment site near Puget Sound. There it is treated for burial, discharge into wastewater treatment systems or incineration. Some waste can even be recycled for use as cleaning solvents used on equipment at Philip Services’ own shop.

McGillivray says his wife doesn’t ask him to look for safer work. She used to do the same work herself, in fact, and when the kids are in school she’ll likely go back to it. “We can never be paid well enough,” McGillivray laments, but despite the dangers he says he gets plenty of satisfaction from knowing that one busted meth lab is one less meth lab. But the element of frustration remains. “For every one we get I guarantee you there are 10 more, and that’s no exaggeration,” he says. “When you hear people say we don’t have a meth problem, it’s because they’re not looking.”

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