BILLINGS — For the first time, methamphetamine outpaced marijuana as the most common drug found in addition to alcohol in DUI samples sent to the state crime lab last year.
Meth has also been detected more often in other cases that the crime lab’s toxicology division handles, according to a summary report from the Montana Department of Justice’s Forensic Science Division.
“I think that’s the real take-home of this summary, is the massive increase in methamphetamine,” said Scott Larson, toxicology supervisor at the crime lab.
Alcohol remains the most prevalent substance found in DUI toxicology cases.
In 2015, alcohol was the only detected substance in 2,277 cases. There were 3,380 total DUI cases tested that year.
The lab had 294 DUI cases involving meth, and the concentration of the drug increased 123 percent. That’s up from 2011, when state toxicologists processed 73 DUI samples that were positive for meth.
Marijuana used to be the most common substance after alcohol found in DUI blood tests. In 2015, meth became more common in DUI blood tests, according to the lab.
The toxicology section of the state crime lab in Missoula also does postmortem drug screens for medical examiners and analyzes drug and alcohol tests for cases that involve drug-endangered children. The lab also analyzes urine tests for the Department of Corrections — inmates and those on probation.
The lab tests for a range of different drugs — like marijuana, prescription narcotics, hallucinogens and inhalants. The overall number of positive drug findings has decreased over the years.
DUIs make up the largest caseload, accounting for more than half of the 6,139 cases handled last year. In the majority of DUI tests, alcohol is the only substance present in the blood sample.
But meth has increased in other test areas. They include postmortem drug screens, where the lab had 20 positive cases for meth in 2011. That jumped to 73 in 2015, though the lab handled 801 total cases.
Urinalysis tests conducted on probationers and parolees have turned up more meth as well. No other drug has spiked in the same way.
Chris Evans, deputy chief for the Billings region of Montana Probation and Parole, said that there was certainly an increase in violations for meth use since 2011. He said that when officers spoke to the offenders, they heard it was often an easy drug to get.
“The availability of methamphetamine during that time was a lot greater,” he said. “There was just more of it around.”
Of the 1,192 urinalysis cases handled by the lab in 2015, more than 550 turned up positive for meth. There were fewer than 200 in 2011.
In DUI, urine and postmortem samples, meth was the only drug other than alcohol that has steadily become more common.
Other institutions, including the court system, have seen the effects of increased meth use. A February report by The Billings Gazette found that the number of felony drug possession charges in Yellowstone County has significantly increased over the years. Most of them involved meth.
The report also tallied tests from traffic fatalities. In more than a third of fatal crashes cases in 2015, no drugs or alcohol were found in the victims.
The most common drug present in fatal crashes in 2015 were central nervous system depressants, which cover a range of prescription medications. Larson said they can be drugs that treat anxiety and depression, or they could be sleeping pills.
“This is a big problem in terms of DUI cases,” Larson said.
The numbers are still relatively low, however. There were 14 cases in which the depressants, but no alcohol, were found. Fewer than 20 cases involved those types of depressants and alcohol. The lab studied 213 fatal crash cases in 2015.
The presence of marijuana decreased in urinalysis and DUI cases over five years, the report showed.
One bright spot in the report, Larson said, was the decrease in the presence of hydrocodone in cases like DUIs. The prescription narcotic was once the most common in its class.
But another drug, oxycodone, has gradually increased in tests over the years, nearly replacing the hydrocodone.
The overall caseload for the toxicology section of the crime lab has also steadily increased over the years. There were fewer than 4,000 total cases in 2010, but in 2015 it topped 6,000.
A second state crime lab opened in Billings this year, but it won’t house a toxicology section. Its purpose is to process physical drug evidence, a caseload that has grown alongside the number of possession cases in court.
Phil Kinsey, crime lab administrative director, said that there are no plans to expand the Eastern Montana lab for toxicology.