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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Republicans push immigration restrictions in response to Montana's fentanyl crisis

L to R: Sen. Steve Daines, Gallatin County Sheriff Dan Springer, Attorney General Austin Knudsen, Gov. Greg Gianforte and Congressman Matt Rosendale gather near Highway 191 in the Gallatin Valley on August 19, 2022.to  talk about the fentanyl crisis in the state and their plans to address it
Shaylee Ragar
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L to R: Sen. Steve Daines, Gallatin County Sheriff Dan Springer, Attorney General Austin Knudsen, Gov. Greg Gianforte and Congressman Matt Rosendale gather near Highway 191 in the Gallatin Valley on August 19, 2022.to talk about the fentanyl crisis in the state and their plans to address it

Montana’s highest ranking Republican officials gathered August 19th to talk about the fentanyl crisis in the state and their plans to address it. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is up to 100 times as potent as morphine.

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The state crime lab reports a more than 1,000% increase in fentanyl-related overdoses since 2017, and Native Americans disproportionately make up overdose deaths.

Gov. Greg Gianforte blamed the fentanyl crisis on federal government inaction at the Mexico border, and has joined other governors calling on President Biden to reintroduce Trump-era immigration restrictions.

The federal government reports that illicit drugs most often enter the U.S. through legal ports of entry carried by people who are allowed in, not by illegal immigrants.

Gov. Gianforte says criminal interdiction and prosecution are his number one priority in the response to rising fentanyl in Montana, and drug abuse treatment is second.

Attorney General Austin Knudsen says he considers fentanyl "the number one threat to Montana.” He wants increased funding for enforcement efforts and has joined other attorneys general in suing the federal government to try to restrict immigration.

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At a press conference along Highway 191 in the Gallatin Valley, a known drug trafficking corridor, Gov. Greg Gianforte blamed the fentanyl crisis on federal government inaction at the Mexico border.

“Action is urgently needed, but the Biden Administration is only letting the problem get worse,” Gianforte said.

In April, President Joe Biden released a National Drug Control Strategy, a direction to federal agencies to expand access to treatment, advance racial equity in drug policy, and reduce the supply of illicit substances.

But Gianforte and other Republican governors say more needs to be done.

Gianforte, and a coalition of other governors led by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona, has called on President Biden to reintroduce Trump-era policies that restrict immigration.

Those include requiring asylum-seekers to wait for court proceedings on the Mexico side of the border, to finish building the border wall and to end a department of homeland security practice of releasing detainees at the border on their own recognizance. The federal government reported in April detaining more than 200,000 migrants at the southern border, the highest number of arrests in two decades.

The federal government also reports that illicit drugs most often enter the U.S. through legal ports of entry carried by people who are allowed in, not by illegal immigrants.

Gianforte says the coalition of governors created the American Governors’ Border Strike Force this spring out of a need for more action.

“It’s a partnership with 25 other states to do the job the federal government refuses to do.”

The states agree to share resources, intelligence on drug trafficking, law enforcement training and improved interdiction of drugs on interstates.

Republican Congressman Matt Rosendale, U.S Sen. Steve Daines and Attorney General Austin Knudsen were also part of the press conference.

Knudsen said stopping the flow of fentanyl to the U.S. is an urgent priority for his office and he’s joined other attorneys general in suing the federal government to try to restrict immigration.

“I consider fentanyl truly the number one threat to Montana.”

According to the state department of justice, law enforcement in Montana has seized nearly twice the amount of fentanyl in the first six months of 2022 than in the past three years combined.

The state crime lab reports a more than 1,000% increase in fentanyl-related overdoses since 2017, and Native Americans disproportionately make up overdose deaths. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is up to 100 times as potent as morphine.

The Montana Department of Justice has deployed two criminal interdiction teams to curb trafficking on Montana’s highways. Part of that is being funded by a federal grant.

Still, Attorney General Knudsen says law enforcement do not have enough resources, like ample supply of Narcan to treat overdoses. He says his department will be asking for more funding.

“I would be shirking my responsibility if we didn’t. I’m a small government fiscal conservative, I wear that on my sleeve, but our population is increasing, crime is increasing, drug trafficking is increasing. Those are all things we know are happening in Montana.”

Knudsen said it’s important that law enforcement work in pairs when dealing with fentanyl, as any exposure could leave an officer incapacitated.

Sen. Daines said fentanyl is coming from both Mexico and China, but, “The lowest hanging fruit at the moment is to secure the southern border. This is a complicated issue. There's multiple facets to the solution, but there are some solutions that we immediately can put in place and stop the flow of illegals.”

After 17 overdoses — including four deaths — this spring, Indigenous leaders in Montana and surrounding states look for ways to stop the fentanyl crisis and provide more treatment and care.

A 2020 intelligence report from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency says some fentanyl is smuggled into the U.S. from Canada, on a smaller scale.

Zachary Mueller, political director for America’s Voice, an advocacy group for immigrants, says migrants seeking asylum and safety in the United States aren’t the problem.

“And if you are misdiagnosing the problem on purpose for cynical political reasons, it really prevents us from actually talking about the real solutions.”

Mueller says the messaging that blames the fentanyl problem on migrants is dehumanizing and disrespectful.

Chelsea Shover is a professor at UCLA’s School of Medicine and studies opioid and fentanyl use. She says addiction treatment and testing drugs for laced fentanyl are important to addressing the issue.

“And there’s just not enough awareness around that, so that messaging with testing is really important,” she says.

Test strips that could let someone know if a substance like marijuana is laced with fentanyl are currently illegal for Montanans to carry as they’re deemed drug paraphernalia.

Gianforte says criminal interdiction and prosecution are his number one priority in the response to rising fentanyl in Montana, and drug abuse treatment is second. His administration allocated $25 million annually to addiction treatment and prevention and has launched a new initiative that offers treatment in lieu of an arrest if an individual turns in their drugs to law enforcement. That’s called the Angel Initiative.

“If you are, or you know someone who's, trapped in addiction, there are services available to help. Please reach out and we'll connect you with those services.”

The state health department said it wouldn’t release the number of Angel Initiative participants to date to protect their privacy, but that it’s encouraged by the program’s progress.

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Shaylee began covering state government and politics for Montana Public Radio in August 2020. Originally from Belgrade, Montana, she graduated from the University of Montana’s journalism program and previously worked as a reporter for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and UM’s Legislative News Service. Please share tips, questions and concerns by emailing shaylee.ragar@mso.umt.edu. 
Freddy Monares was a reporter and Morning Edition host at Montana Public Radio.