A daylong conference at Carroll College about the opioid crisis brought together experts from Canada and Montana to discuss how to best address the growing issue.

Canadian Consul General Stéphane Lessard, and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Attorney General Tim Fox spoke to a group of doctors, policymakers and nonprofit leaders about the potential dangers and difficulties opioids have thrust into the spotlight in recent years.

Like the United States, Canada is also suffering from an opioid crisis. Western Canada, including British Columbia and Alberta, are "suffering most" from the rise in synthetic and prescription opioids, according to Lessard.

For Lessard, creating cross-border communication is a key part of dealing with the issue of drugs. "We want to hear from experts with different backgrounds, and create good communication with our counterparts in Montana," Lessard said.

The goal of strengthening collaboration between Canada and Montana was a touchstone in Bullock's opening speech.

"These are challenges that bind our community together," Bullock said. 

Much of his speech looked at the work Montana has done in the past decade to combat opioid and specifically prescription opioid abuse throughout the state. Montana has a lower rate of prescription overdoses than the United States at large and a lower rate of actual prescriptions for opioids per 100 people than much of the U.S. as well.

"Montana has the second lowest number of deaths for opioids since February 2018," Bullock said.

He attributed the positive statistics to prescription drug drop-off boxes at pharmacies and law enforcement centers, but also to Medicaid expansion.

According to the Department of Public Health and Human Services, 8,096 Montanans have received some form of outpatient substance abuse services and another 2,161 have been in residential services.

"This is so much bigger than just law enforcement," Bullock said. "It's the hard work of many leaderships."

Fox said the opioid crisis was a "huge issue for Montana." 

"It's the No. 1 health crisis and the No. 1 crisis," Fox said. "We can't jail ourselves out of this thing."

Dr. Greg Holtzman, Montana's state medical officer, explained that simply focusing on opioids was missing some of the larger issues surrounding people living in Canada and the United States.

"These are diseases of despair," Holtzman said, referring to alcohol use, illegal drug use and suicide. For many people, turning to substances is a way to not feel awful and that response can create a dangerous feedback loop.

Holtzman said that of the 345 deaths by drug overdose from 2015 to 2017 in Montana, 86 were directly correlated to opioids. Holtzman said it was hard to tell what the intent was with overdose deaths at times.

"Is this an accident or a suicide?" Holtzman asked. "Sometimes people are so in despair they just take drugs and say, what happens, happens."  

"I think we're attacking this far enough upstream we're getting at the root of the problem," Holtzman said.

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Crime and Health Reporter

Crime and health reporter for the Helena Independent Record.

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