HELENA – A package of bills to fight opioid and methamphetamine abuse in Montana and across the nation has passed the U.S. Senate, in what observers are calling a rare instance of bipartisan cooperation in Congress.
U.S. Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) hailed their passage Monday, saying the measures will “help combat an epidemic that touches the lives of almost every person in our country.”
Montana Chief Deputy Attorney General Jon Bennion also told MTN News Tuesday that the bills contain assistance on key programs like drug treatment courts and drug law-enforcement task forces – but that the state also needs to do more to get in front of the problem.
“While there are some prevention efforts going on, there is not a real thoughtful, statewide approach on prevention,” he said. “The state doesn’t offer any money from its general fund or any other state source for prevention. It all comes from the federal government.”
Bennion said his boss, Attorney General Tim Fox, plans to make prevention programs and funding a priority at the 2019 Montana Legislature.
National media coverage of the federal bills focused on an epidemic of opioid abuse, including heroin and the synthetic drug fentanyl.
But Daines said that meth is a bigger problem in Montana and that the bills include programs to tackle its impact as well.
“Meth is linked to more violent crime and robberies (in Montana) than any other drug,” he said on the Senate floor Monday. “Meth is highly addictive, it’s destructive, it destroys the body, both inside and out.”
In its annual Crime Lab Report released in July, the state Justice Department said methamphetamine in post-mortem cases had increased 375% from 2011 to 2017 in Montana, and 415% in overall controlled-substance cases.
The federal bills, approved 99-to-1 by the Senate on Monday evening, authorized $8.4 billion worth of programs for fiscal 2019. They now go to a House-Senate conference committee, which must hammer out differences between two versions of the package before sending it to President Trump for his signature.
Congress also must vote to approve the actual funding. The Senate voted Tuesday for bills that include $3.8 billion to combat opioid and other drug abuse.
The package of bills approved by the Senate Monday include:
- A measure adding Indian tribes to the list of entities that can receive federal grant funding to combat drug abuse.
- Increased screening to prevent fentanyl from being shipped by the U.S. Postal Service.
- Allowing physicians to prescribe more medication to wean addicts off opioids.
- Grants for “recovery centers” where people trying to kick an addiction can get temporary housing, job training and other assistance, and money for drug treatment courts.
- Loan-repayment assistance for mental-health professionals who work in substance-abuse treatment in underserved areas.
- Extension of federal help for law enforcement drug task forces.
Daines said he’s hopeful that the bills will help Montana and the nation start cutting into the problem.
“At the federal level, our goal must be to partner with states and communities to overcome this devastating reality,” he said. “These are vital resources in combating meth use in Montana. Without these tools, we’ll continue down a dark path.”
-Mike Dennison reporting for MTN News