Oil Patch and Mexican Meth Hit Southwest Montana
BY PAT HILL
Montana has seen an increase in the number of methamphetamine-related crimes and arrests since 2012, and though much of the blame may fall on the Bakken oil boom, law enforcement officials admit that much of the problem is really a matter of supply and demand.
“As long as you have demand for it, somebody, somewhere is going to make it,” Missoula Detective Sgt. Ed McLean told the Missoulian earlier this year. “There’s an increased demand in the Northwest for methamphetamine that’s infectious,” he said. “When you end up having shipments coming through, it increases the supply in our area.” Missoula lies along the I-90 corridor that authorities say the meth is traveling along, from Washington State to Montana and on to the bustling oil fields of North Dakota and Eastern Montana known as the Bakken. So does Butte, Bozeman, Livingston, Billings, and dozens of other smaller communities that have also seen an increase in methamphetamine activity.
Last year Montana and North Dakota law enforcement agencies teamed up in an effort to break up one meth distribution ring which resulted in 12 arrests; six of those arrested were from Montana towns including Three Forks, Big Timber, Billings, Fairview and Sidney. Cities and towns where that meth was sold also included Columbus, Livingston and Bozeman.
Robert Ferrell Armstrong, 49, also known as “Dr. Bob,” of Spokane, Wash., was charged with obtaining wholesale amounts of meth in Washington and distributing the drug in Montana in conjunction with the other individuals charged in the case, including Robert John Ferrell, 51, of Fairview; Kera Dawn Evans, 30, of Three Forks; Lloyd Leon Westervelt, 37, of Big Timber; and Jennie Lynn Britt, 33, of Sidney, who were all charged in a 10-count indictment that contained drug trafficking and firearms crimes. Two other Sidney residents, Keith Edward Lester, 44, and his son, Kyle Edward Lester, 25, were charged with conspiracy and drug possession offenses related to the overall investigation.
In January, Armstrong pleaded guilty to possession of meth with intent to distribute during an appearance before U.S. District Judge Susan Watters in Billings. He faced a mandatory minimum of 10 years to life in prison and a fine of up to $10 million. In August, Watters sentenced Armstrong to 20 years in federal prison. The other defendants also pleaded guilty, receiving varying sentences and fines.
But one prosecutor from the Bakken region says such arrests have done little to curb the explosion in methamphetamine use there, as cheap, high-quality drugs from Mexico flood the market. Valley County Attorney Nickolas Murnion told the Associated Press that the well-paid workers drawn to the oil fields of North Dakota and Eastern Montana have become a “magnet for meth dealers.”
“With all the publicity about the money to be made in the Bakken, that’s become the focus of their market,” he said. “It’s coming up through Mexico, cartel meth, and it’s a lot purer form than the meth people were making a few years ago.” But Montana’s meth problem is about more than the Bakken.
“There’s a Bakken nexus, no doubt,” Billings Police Sgt. Brian Korell, who supervises the Billings/Yellowstone County Special Investigations Unit, told the Billings Gazette in September. “But we’ve got our own problems here. There’s dope destined for Billings, Montana, and it doesn’t leave Billings, Montana.” And that goes for other Montana towns and cities, too.
It’s not a new problem. Meth was a problem in Big Sky Country back in the 1990s, too, but it was a problem with a different face. In the ‘90s, nearly all of the meth used locally was produced locally. Ingredients could be obtained at the grocery store via over-the-counter medications. Meth labs showed up in abandoned buildings like old farm houses, in motels, in RVs, and even in family homes. But by the mid-2000s, state and federal regulations started making it more difficult to buy those medications. Home-grown meth cookers found business much more difficult. But soon the drug started showing up again, this time from Mexico, and this time the “crystal meth” was much purer—about 95 percent pure. And the advent of the Bakken boom brought about a much bigger market for the product.
That crystal meth can be bought wholesale in Mexico from drug cartels for $200 to $300 an ounce, and sell in Montana for $2,000 to $2,400. A gram of meth (1/28 of that ounce) sells for $100 to $125. The incentive for dealers is obvious.
The incentive to use the drug is more complicated. Methamphetamine is a highly addictive stimulant with a long-lasting high. Immediate effects of the drug can include euphoria, increased energy and alertness, and increased libido, but often accompanied by excessive sweating, increased blood pressure, appetite loss, insomnia, agitation, confusion and even violence. Chronic meth use leads to increased craving for and tolerance of the drug, weight loss, rapid tooth decay and loss, and psychosis that can persist for years after a user stops taking the drug. The havoc the drug can wreak leaves Missoula’s Detective Sgt. McLean wondering why meth use is increasing in Montana once more.
“There is no concrete reason. There’s none. You are dealing with an illicit substance that everyone knows is bad for you,” McLean told the Missoulian. Educators, courts, and law enforcement agree that one of the best tools to battle meth lies in education about the substance and its damaging effects.
Educational efforts like the Montana Meth Project are keeping the numbers of users lower among teens and young adults, but it seems that the meth problem in the Treasure State is showing no signs of slowing down. On Sept. 23, in Billings, authorities arrested two California men in a downtown motel and seized six pounds of meth and $1,700 during the arrest, the culmination of a months-long investigation in the Billings area. The two men, Paul Theodore Alarcon, 47, of Azusa, Calif., and George Garcia Villa, 47, of Tulare, Calif., were charged with possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine and with conspiracy, and face a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years to life in prison and up to a $10 million fine if convicted.