Ten ounces of cocaine. Three ounces of heroin. Two and a half pounds of meth, along with two handguns. The list of recent drug-related seizures rattled off by Missoula County Sheriff's Sergeant Jeremiah Peterson isn't meant to be a comprehensive catalog of everything the High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) task force has accomplished so far this year. It's more of a sampler platter. One drug case tends to bleed into another, he says, so to say too much more might jeopardize an ongoing investigation.
"We have I-90 that runs right along the heart of the city, and there is a huge amount of narcotics that are transported on that interstate corridor," Peterson says. "It probably happens daily, you know. Drugs go one direction, and money goes the other way."
Peterson is relatively new to the task force, having joined as its coordinator in early March. But the effort itself has been active since the early 2000s, a mix of city, county, state and federal law enforcement agents working to disrupt and dismantle the flow of drugs in and through western Montana. Peterson is now in charge of a 20-person team that includes members of the DEA, National Guard and U.S. Secret Service, all conveniently under one roof. It's one of five such task forces in Montana, all of which fall under HIDTA's four-state Rocky Mountain region.
"It's real important, particularly in the more rural states where there are limited resources, to have that kind of support," says regional director Tom Gorman.
One critical piece of the HIDTA formula, particularly in Missoula, has been the availability of funding through the federal government's HIDTA grant program. Montana's task forces receive about $1 million a year from the program—money that Peterson says is critical in making it feasible for local agencies to participate. Last week, Sen. Jon Tester sounded the alarm over a Trump administration proposal to eliminate the HIDTA program as part of a larger series of cuts to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Tester isn't the only one who's worried.
"If the funding were to go away, it would, I think, essentially dissolve HIDTA," Peterson says. "I don't know that we could sustain what we're doing right now without that federal funding."
The Rocky Mountain HIDTA annual report for 2016 isn't due out until June. But according to the region's most recent report, the federal government allocated just over $9.5 million for task force efforts across Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado in 2015. HIDTA initiatives succeeded in removing drugs valued at $112.4 million from the marketplace—a return on investment, the report points out, of $11.50 for every dollar spent on the program.
"As far as the local stuff," Peterson says, "it would be really hard for the sheriff's office and the police department to fund their portion that we're getting from HIDTA to make that happen."