Thomas Cullen Whitten tried his first illegal drug when he was 15 years old.

He raced motorcycles — sometimes exceeding speeds of 115 mph — and was a drummer in more than a few garage bands in Alabama in the ’80s.

He committed his first felony before he turned 25 and spent six months working as a roadie for Lynyrd Skynyrd after being discharged from the Army National Guard in 1988.

He’s served time for felony theft and felony DUI in both state and federal prisons; and throughout his escapades, Whitten said he’s broken almost every bone in his body.

He’s had multiple surgeries to fix back injuries, pins and plates implanted in his left shoulder and facial reconstruction surgery for broken jawbones.

As a result, Whitten is a chronic pain patient.

“I made some pretty bad choices throughout my life,” said a beleaguered, now 49-year-old Whitten.

“Every time that I was in trouble (with the law) I was doing it for drugs or alcohol, to feed my addiction,” he said. “If I’d have behaved and done like my mother told me, I’d be a lot better off.”

“That’s why I deal with chronic pain,” he said. “A lot of it was self-inflicted.”

Now, Whitten exists under the influence of a daily high dose of Oxycodone to silence the pain that constantly reminds him of the ghosts of his battered body’s past.

“I have to have them to operate throughout the day,” he said.

As a recovering alcoholic, Whitten keeps his prescriptions at his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor’s house in order to hinder the temptation to take more than the daily prescribed dose.

His sponsor gives him his daily dose at the start of each day.

He readily admits he is addicted to the medication.

“All through my life I had an addictive personality,” he said. “I can get addicted to a bowl of Cocoa Puffs.”

Whitten is currently on probation for a felony theft he committed in 2007 in Helena. He served five months in the Butte-Silver Bow Detention Center for that crime but still has nearly four years left to serve on probation.

He said he desperately wants to stop his opioid therapy and switch to medical marijuana to manage his pain, but his situation in the judicial system has made that nearly impossible.

“I’ve been on those for 20 years probably,” he said of the narcotics.

“I could probably teach the class for any kind of addiction problems,” he said. “I’ve quit alcohol. I’ve quit heroin. I’ve quit cocaine, just about every one of them.”

But the one drug that he just can’t seem to kick is the one that he depends on to survive. Whitten said he’s tried to quit the pain pills cold turkey before — mainly when he’s been in jail and can’t get his prescriptions — but it has proved to be nearly impossible.

“It’s rough withdraws,” he said.

“That’s the ultimate goal,” Whitten said. “Get weaned off and maybe by then probation and parole will decide (about medical marijuana).”

A statewide problem

Since 2011, the Missouri River Drug Task Force has collected 1,365 units of prescription drugs — one unit equaling one pill, one patch etc. — through 68 different investigations.

It has collected 50 units through eight investigations in 2014 alone.

The Montana State Crime Lab is seeing more toxicology cases involved prescription drugs as well.

In 2009, the lab investigated only 3,633 prescription toxicology cases. In 2013, that number jumped to 5,991, a nearly 40 percent increase.

Scott Larson, the toxicology supervisor at the state crime lab, said that, despite the jump in cases, the amount of opioid abuse has remained fairly stable throughout that time period.

“There is a five-year block of time where there’s no real increase or decrease,” he said. “It’s stable both within a dead population, a population that’s within the corrections system and then in the DUI world, which theoretically is just a random sampling of society.”

Larson finds the lack of trends somewhat concerning because it means that there hasn’t been a shift away from the use and abuse of the drugs now known to have dangerous addictive properties.

“More people have probably accidentally fallen into drug abuse from opioid use than any other drug,” he said. “The combination of these drugs with ethanol, alcohol, is a really major problem in the post-mortem cases that we got.”

Where to go

As prescription drug abuse continues to rise, the number of addicts in the criminal justice system also increases.

Within the Lewis and Clark County District Court system, Treatment Court provides a welcome alternative to jail or prison for those who have been convicted of drug crimes.

“It’s a team approach to an addiction issue,” said District Court Judge James Reynolds, who oversees the court.

“These are folks who have made a series of bad decisions in life,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is give them tools and treatment to start making good decisions.”

Coordinator Freyja Bell said there is an intensive screening process for acceptance into the program. Once someone is admitted they receive rigorous treatment from people — including an attorney, law enforcement officers and a probation officer — who truly understand the nature of addiction.

“I would say there’s a huge part of Helena that doesn’t understand drug addiction,” Bell said.

“It’s like, “Stop using. Why can’t you stop?’ ” she said. “It’s not that easy.”

Bell said the program typically runs over the course of 18 months and has three phases. As they progress through each phase, the participants receive fewer restrictions and less supervision.

Throughout the process, participants are required to attend a variety of support meetings, get a job or pursue an education, do community service and pay restitution fines.

“It really is all encompassing for every part of their life,” she said.

In order to diminish the number of people who might find themselves in the criminal justice system for drug addiction charges, law enforcement agencies are spearheading state, county and citywide preventative programs.

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox said the Department of Justice has plans to hire an outreach specialist to specifically address prescription drug abuse starting in July.

“We want to jump start our prescription drug abuse prevention program,” Fox said. “For the first time in the Department of Justice’s history, there will be a dedicated person to that effort.

“It’s such a huge problem — and it’s only growing — that I felt that it was necessary to focus one person’s sole energy on the prescription drug abuse problem,” he said.

Fox said he also plans to expand and increase the number of prescription drug drop-off locations throughout the state.

“And to get the word out better so people know where they are,” he said.

The Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office held its annual drop-off day April 26 and saw the number of drugs collected nearly double from last year.

In 2013, Sheriff Leo Dutton said the event collected 87.5 pounds of prescription drugs around the county.

This year, 179 pounds of prescription drugs were collected, with 87 pounds collected at the Helena Wal-Mart alone.

“The message in that is there are good people, and they want to do the right thing; but they need the opportunity to dispose of them correctly,” Dutton said.

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