BILLINGS - It’s not as if fentanyl hasn’t been in our Montana communities before. It’s just that now the quantities are so much greater.
Recent seizure numbers pulled from the Billings Police Department even surprised the officers who’ve been working on drug-related crimes for years.
In 2021, those numbers got worse with a 21,000% increase in fentanyl seizures from the Drug Task Force.
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“I think that when you look around the nation, you're going to see fentanyl seizures on the rise,” Billings Police Lt. Brandon Wooley said.
Pill seizures in Billings went from 114 in 2020 to 24,278 pills in 2021.
Gram seizures also increased from 55.7 grams in 2020 up to 1,535 grams in 2021.
“(It's) coming through the mail, we see it coming through our highway systems, and it's also coming from the southern border supply,” Wooley said.
“That's just the amount that we seized as law enforcement,” he added. “That also means that there's a portion in the community that is also out there that has increased as well.”
The pills look precisely like prescription drugs in the form of oxycodone or methadone but have instead been crushed, stamped, and laced with lethal amounts of fentanyl by the same drug dealers that sell them in an ever-changing drug market.
“You might get very little fentanyl in the pills or the pill, maybe mostly fentanyl,” he said. “And so for those who are using it, there's no quality control with it. You don't know if you're taking (either) a life-ending overdose or if you're not going to get anything at all.”
Drug dealers have their sights set on Montana because the street value is so high.
Wooley says one pill could sell for as much as $30 on the streets of Montana compared to $5 in Denver or $2 in Phoenix, a city close to the southern border.
Data shared with the Montana Attorney General’s Office states the Montana Department of Justice State Crime lab reported a 116% increase in fentanyl-related deaths in the state from 2019 to 2020.
Billings police officers carry Narcan and are trained to look for these deadly drugs in every situation. Narcan helps to reverse symptoms of opioid overdose and is often used often by law enforcement. The substance blocks certain receptors in the body that opioids bind to.
“We've had a handful of situations where officers have revived someone on scene,” said Wooley.
One of those situations surfaced after the police department released bodycam video to MTN News in response to a public information request. Before the video was released, the city blurred the faces of those depicted in the video to protect their identity.
The officer is seen spraying the substance into the victim's nose twice and within minutes, the victim wakes up.
That victim was lucky, but not all are.
“It’s Russian roulette,” said Billings resident Kim Edinger.
In July of 2017, Edinger lost her only son Kaden to a drug overdose. He was found dead in a Bozeman apartment.
Edinger says her son, who was 20 at the time, unknowingly took a lethal dose of carfentanyl, which is even more powerful and deadly than fentanyl.
She says the moment the deputy came to her door to tell her about Kaden, her life was suddenly ripped apart.
“You know, everybody thinks it could not happen to them,” she said. “I guess until it happens to you, then you think, oh, it might be somebody else's problem. I'm telling you, it happens fast,” she said.
Kaden’s future was bright.
“He was captain of the cross-country team. He was going to be the valedictorian. You know what? He wanted to go to the medical field,” she said.
She says Kaden started to spiral down a long road of anxiety and turned to drugs when he lost the way.
“We were exhausted,” she said. “We were exhausted, and we were scared.”
Kaden died after being given a pill that was being sold at the cafeteria at Montana State University. Edinger says that same batch was linked to a handful of other overdoses. Ultimately, years later she says her family learned that through that case, a drug officer indicted 11 people, and all were under the age of 25.
“All of a sudden that tornado stops, and everybody flies out and one is gone. And you think, 'How is this even possible?'”
Wooley explained that the increase in demand is bringing the supply push into the Billings area, and a massive markup in price for pills is bringing an added financial incentive for dealers.
“Also, its potency level is much higher,” he said.
It’s also led to an increase in violent crimes in Billings, according to Wooley.
“Probably most of our really violent drug nexus crimes in Billings were tied to methamphetamine,” Wooley said. “But with the increase in fentanyl, we're seeing an increase in some of the violent crimes being mixed with fentanyl.”
Parents should know these pills can fall into the hands of anyone.
As Edinger continues to cope with the loss of her son, she also wants to shed light on her family’s situation. She says no one should feel stigma or shame in seeking help.
“I wish I could tell him, 'Why did you do this? Like why did you even do it one time? Do you know why? You have so many opportunities, that you're so blessed. Why?'”