On Wednesday Montana's Republican Senator Steve Daines held a pair of roundtables in Montana focused on the state's methamphetamine crisis. I had a chance to talk to him briefly afterwards.
He started at the hospital in Kalispell.
Senator Steve Daines: It's putting a strain on our medical system. It's putting a strain on our foster care system. It's putting a strain on law enforcement. After I was in Kalispell I went to Great Falls and there met with the sheriff of Cascade County, the police chief of Great Falls, U.S. Marshall's staff, as well as some of the other nonprofits that are working to help Montanans who are addicted to drugs or alcohol.
What I'm hearing across the board is we have a meth crisis here in Montana. In fact, the U.S. Marshall told me that in the state of Montana we doubled the amount of meth seized last year versus the year before. The number one issue we're seeing for law enforcement now is meth, that exceeds fentanyl, it's becoming a bigger problem than even alcohol as relates to addiction problems.
It's been very very informative as I've traveled across Western Montana, Central Montana, and late last week in Eastern Montana hearing a recurring theme virtually everywhere I go, is the meth epidemic that we face in Montana.
Eric Whitney: I know President Trump has talked a lot about drugs coming across the border from Mexico, and when I saw these events it struck me as, perhaps you're trying to help the President make the case that a national emergency declaration is justified. Do I have that right?
SD: It's not to justify that case. I was having the meth roundtables before the debate was occurring on border security. But what I have seen, Eric, is that the crisis that on the southern border, the crisis here in Montana, is is a national emergency. I think this is a serious issue.
EW: What impact do you expect the President's emergency declaration to have on the meth situation in Montana?
SD: Well, as I chatted with Border Patrol, spent an entire night with them, pulled an all nighter with Border Patrol, they made it very clear that we're not going to secure the southern border without having a physical barrier. Yes, they need more boots on the ground, yes they need more technology, but they've proven over and over again in the Yuma sector, El Paso sector, Tucson Sector, San Diego sector that when you put up a physical barrier, that is what is needed to ultimately reduce illegal crossings by 95 percent. We've seen this over and over again on the southern border.
EW: And that will have a direct impact on the situation here in Montana?
SD: Absolutely. When I was in the patrol boats with the with Border Patrol in the Rio Grande, that border is porous and it's primitive. We watched literally the scouts that are drug smugglers on the Mexican side watching for us to go by, and as soon as we would go by, they'd signal to their fellow smugglers to move drugs across the river. It is absolutely porous, it's very easy to move drugs across the border and the Border Patrol told us that they will not be able to significantly reduce the amount of drugs coming across that border without a physical barrier, and if we do that it will have an impact, because that meth is coming directly from Mexico here to Montana.
EW: So when people say that the majority of drugs smuggled into the United States from Mexico are coming through legal ports of entry, people are hiding them in vehicles that are coming through legal ports ports of entry, larger quantities are coming through there then these unsecured areas of the border, you don't believe that's true?
EW: It's both. The Border Patrol were pleading with us, yes we've continued to tighten up the ports of entry, but part of the problem is - we're not sure how much, it's not certain exactly how big that problem is because it's coming across, it's flooding across the southern border. Both through the ports as well as the vast areas where there is not a physical barrier. The Rio Grande Valley sector is 277 miles long and the entire southern border is 1,954 miles long which we have about 700 miles of physical barrier, out of 1,954 miles.
Now, also Eric, I've heard my colleagues say that the President wants to build a sea-to-shining-sea concrete wall. That is an equivocally false. At the full funding levels the President asked for, if he got the $5 billion plus, it would build net new physical barrier of a couple hundred miles on a 1,954 mile long southern border.
EW: Given what you just said about, there's this porous border - if there isn't a barrier from sea-to-shining-sea, won't the smugglers just move to areas where there is no barrier and we're left with the same problem?
SD: So, what they need is - there's hot spots on the border. And so the smugglers like to come across where there is infrastructure where they can move the drugs like McAllen, Texas, across the border and then into their distribution networks. So it's going to be a matter of prioritization, but that the spot we need to stop right now is the Rio Grande Valley sector. There's other parts where the physical barrier will have less of an impact, it'll have maximum impact right now in the Rio Grande Valley sector that is where most the dollars will be initially spent here with the border security bill that we just passed in Congress.
EW: So you believe that the President using his powers to declare a national emergency is appropriate in this situation? And are you concerned about the precedent that sets for future executives to declare emergencies for things like global warming or gun control or other issues?
SD: What I what I want to make certain the President does secure the southern border and I want him to do what he can within his legal authority.
The courts will have the final say in this and in and resolve this one way or the other.
EW: I guess that's less than a 100 percent endorsement that, yes, this was the appropriate action, and of course the courts should allow him to do this.
SD: Well that's why we have three branches of government, and I think it's important the President has to assess the situation and deem this to be a national emergency. And I've seen we have a crisis on our southern border, and I would invite all Montanans to spend time traveling to every corner of this state in listening to the health care professionals, listening to those in treatment centers, listening to law enforcement. It is a crisis. It is driving record levels here of the treatment needed for addiction. Meth is doing that but also is driving a violent crime. Law enforcement will say that it's the meth at the moment that is driving increases in violent crime. I think we all want to see safer neighborhoods safer communities.
EW: Do you think there's anything else important for Montanans to know about the appropriateness of President Trump declaring a national emergency over border security?
SD: Well, I saw it firsthand in the southern border from 2 am to 8 am, shoulder to shoulder with our Border Patrol watching them apprehend illegals that have crossed from Honduras were on their way to both New York and Miami. I saw drug smugglers' scouts who are getting ready to signal additional crossings on the Rio Grande ,when Border Patrol told us they were only stopping seven percent - seven percent of the drugs coming across the border. And I when heard it in the last few days across Montana that we have an epidemic of meth, and when I asked law enforcement where is that meth coming from? Its the Mexican cartels and it's having a direct effect on the state of Montana in a significant way.