HELENA — Starting this week, people dealing with drug addiction can come to the Lewis and Clark County Detention Center, pick up a phone and get connected with treatment resources – without fear of legal consequences.
“There has never been this opportunity to do this; it’s brand new,” said Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton. “It takes me a little while to think about it. But if it starts people to get out of the addiction cyclone and into treatment, I am happy.”
On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Gianforte joined Dutton in Helena to announce the official launch of the Montana Angel Initiative in Lewis and Clark County.
“Our shared hope, of course, is that this initiative will save lives, and I’m confident that it will,” said Gianforte.
The Angel Initiative is aimed at improving access to substance abuse resources and getting more people into treatment. People who are eligible will be able to go to any participating law enforcement agency and get help finding treatment, without facing criminal charges.
In Lewis and Clark County, when someone comes into the detention center and asks to take part in the Angel Initiative, a detention officer will come down and begin working with them. They can turn in small amounts of drugs and paraphernalia, and the officer will connect them with the treatment provider.
“If it’s in town, we’ll probably just give them a ride,” Dutton said. “What an opportunity to get them to treatment.”
Right now, the main treatment partner in Lewis and Clark County will be the Helena Indian Alliance. Executive director Todd Wilson said they’re committed to serving anyone in the community.
“Our providers will be the ones on the back end, getting these referrals and providing the treatment services that are needed,” he said. “We will get the clients the help they need without fear of legal involvement; we will ethically be able to provide treatment for clients who are the highest need in our community.”
This launch came just weeks after a string of about 10 overdoses in Lewis and Clark County, as well as a smaller spike in overdoses in Flathead County. Gianforte said Montana averaged about 69 overdose calls a month between January and September 2021.
The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services estimates more than 90,000 Montanans have a substance abuse disorder, but only a fraction of them seek treatment each year.
DPHHS director Adam Meier told MTN the Angel Initiative is patterned after a similar program in Kentucky, where he held a similar position before coming to Montana. One difference is that Kentucky’s Angel Initiative is run through the state police, while Montana’s is run through multiple local law enforcement agencies.
Lewis and Clark County is the second Montana county to officially begin the Angel Initiative. It initially launched in Cascade County in November. About 18 additional county sheriff’s offices have committed to take part once they complete training. Ten treatment providers across the state have also signed on, including several that serve multiple locations.
Not everyone will be eligible for the Angel Initiative. It’s not open to registered sex offenders or those with outstanding warrants. Dutton said people trying to bring in large amounts of drugs – considered potentially linked to trafficking – could still be investigated.
People also have to come in on their own to get the opportunity – meaning it’s not available after officers respond to a drug-related call.
“It’s going to take courage on the part of the individual,” Gianforte said. “But we can’t keep doing the same thing and expect a different outcome.”
Dutton says, for right now, people wanting to participate in the Angel Initiative can just use the main phone at the front of the detention center. However, in the coming days, the sheriff’s office is planning to install a separate phone specifically for the initiative.
You can find more information about the Angel Initiative on the DPHHS website.