Montgomery County officials and community leaders are working to suppress an increasing substance abuse trend as the popularity of synthetic drugs rises among younger residents.
The county already has a reputation of leading Texas in DWIs—from 2010-16, Montgomery County had 180 DWI-related fatality crashes, according to the district attorney’s office. Of those, more than half involved a controlled substance.
“That number is continuing to increase each year, and that tells us that more people are abusing medicine and drugs besides just drinking alcohol,” said Tyler Dunman, Montgomery County assistant district attorney and special crimes bureau chief.
Additionally, Dunman said roughly 60-70 percent of all crimes committed in Montgomery County are somehow tied to substance abuse.
Although county officials agree alcohol continues to be the most abused substance in Montgomery County because of its legality, marijuana, methamphetamine and synthetic drugs are also prominent.
Drugs like methamphetamine are more popular on the outskirts of the county where the drug is easier to cook. Marijuana, on the other hand, is popular across the board, officials said.
Although synthetic drugs are easy to obtain and use, they are difficult to detect on traditional drug tests, making them a popular substance of choice for younger users, according to local officials.
“Synthetic drugs are extremely dangerous because no one knows what’s in them,” said David Hanna, The Right Step Affiliate Manager.“From one batch to the next, they’re completely different—there’s no quality control. Just one use can lead to death or permanent brain injury, and we’ve seen over and over again where a first-time user tries synthetic marijuana and never recovers.”
In 2016, Montgomery County had 82 overdose or drug-related deaths; as of May, the county has seen 17 so far this year, Dunman said.
Even though Montgomery County is home to several outpatient addiction centers, Evan Roberson, Tri-County Behavioral Health Care executive director, said the county is in desperate need of a detox facility and a residential substance abuse treatment center for medically indigent individuals.
While detox centers serve as a short-term solution for abusers to rid their systems of substances while experiencing withdrawal symptoms, residential treatment facilities are typically 60-90 day programs.
“Residential treatment allows drugs to get completely out of a person’s system and [teaches them]how to handle their lives without the drug,” Roberson said. “That residential component is huge, and it’s completely absent in Montgomery County.”
Hanna said another reason substance abuse treatment is lacking in Montgomery County is because it tends to be viewed as a criminal justice issue rather than a mental health issue.
“We have a history in Texas of using the legal system as our first line of defense against drug abuse,” Hanna said. “While some acts related to drug use are criminal, drug use itself is a mental health issue and needs to be treated as such. It’s negligent to use jail as the way to treat this problem.”
Roberson said patients at Tri-County Health Care who have mental health issues tend to also have problems with substance abuse and vice versa.
“You’d be challenged to find any family that’s not impacted by substance abuse, whether it be alcoholism or drugs—nothing can devastate a life as thoroughly as addiction,” Hanna said. “When lives around us are being devastated, we have a social obligation to help.”
By taking a mental health approach to substance abuse, educating the youth and adding treatment resources, Dunman said he hopes the county can curb substance abuse and save lives.
“By addressing the underlying drug abuse issues, pushing people to get help and educating the youth, hopefully, we can avoid the long-term issues associated with rising drug abuse in the county,” he said.