Methology Redux

When it comes to Arizona's meth addiction, there are no easy solutions

At the same time, politicians are ignoring the problems that are harder to address, like treatment.

As it turns out, meth addiction is not impossible to treat. But like most issues politicians like to ignore, treatment for meth addiction is difficult and costly.

And there has been almost no public education campaign. Instead of billboards plastered with ugly meth mouths and warnings about the dire consequences of meth use (à la the state's incredibly successful anti-tobacco campaign, "Smelly, Puking Habit"), anti-meth crusaders have given us a few grocery bags printed with anti-meth messages, but little else.

This is the old meth problem.
Claudia Ward
This is the old meth problem.

There is little effective drug education in our schools. Remember, back in the day, when Officer Dan came to school to talk about the horrors of pot? Research has found that those DARE days were just as likely to start a drug habit as they were to prevent one from starting.

Bottom line: No one is driving the train.

Attorney General Terry Goddard's heart is in the right place, even if his statistics are sloppy. And certainly city and state leaders who want to limit access to cold medicine mean well.

But they're all focusing on the one part of Arizona's meth problem that's already being handled successfully --shutting down meth labs -- and ignoring the others, which aren't.

Someone needs to step up and take charge. We were surprised to learn that Governor Janet Napolitano -- a leader who generally does the right thing, even if there are sometimes apparent political motivations -- has all but ignored the stranglehold meth has on Arizona.

We were bemused to get an e-mail from Napolitano's press office last week, the very same day we published a story criticizing her lack of involvement on the issue.

Our headline was, "Bad Medicine: Locking up cold medicine makes the politicians feel good -- but it won't put a dent in Arizona's meth habit."

Napolitano's headline was, "Governor urges tough anti-meth policies." In it, Napolitano praised the cities that are passing ordinances to restrict the sale of cold medicine. She cited the work she did while attorney general to clean up meth labs and help remove the children living in them. She complimented the various meth task forces that law enforcement agencies have created.

And that was pretty much it.

Yes, she mentioned one other thing. In July, her release noted, Napolitano asked her staff to work with the attorney general to create a "statewide and community-based anti-meth initiative." They now plan to kick off the project in February.

So what have they been doing for the past five months? Hard to say.

We spent several weeks swapping phone calls with one of Napolitano's spokeswomen, Pati Urias, asking for information about anything and everything the governor is doing to take on meth. We also attempted to contact Rob Evans, chief of the governor's substance abuse policy division.

We weren't looking for smoking guns. We didn't have an agenda. We truly wanted to know what the governor was doing to fight meth. That's it. Even a generic press release would do.

But all Urias was willing (or able) to do was confirm that the state has received a federal grant to survey use of all illicit drugs -- and that only after we faxed her a press release about the grant from the feds.

At least Urias was talking. Evans, supposedly the state's top aide on drug issues, wouldn't even take our call. (Urias explained that Evans is "media shy.")

The press release confirmed our suspicions.

If meth really is an important issue to Napolitano, she's going to have to do more than send out generic, feel-good press releases. She's going to have to pass on her message to her top aides.

And then she's going to have to do something. Something beyond pseudoephedrine.

The governor might do well to look across her state's eastern border to New Mexico.

This past summer, that state convened a methamphetamine task force. The group was co-chaired by what might seem like strange bedfellows: Herman Silva, the state's drug czar, and Reena Szczepanski, director of the state's Drug Policy Alliance, a group devoted to stopping the war on drugs and helping addicts through treatment.

Even better, they moved quickly.

In less time than it took the Phoenix City Council Meth Task Force to enact tighter pseudoephedrine controls, and in less time than it took Napolitano's office to announce the kickoff of its meth initiative, the New Mexico group delivered a seven-page roster of specific "strategy recommendations."

They looked at everything: Who was using. Where they got the stuff. How to stop people from starting. How to minimize the damage once they started.

How to help treatment providers handle the heavy load.

"In the past, we'd seen a Band-Aid approach," Szczepanski says. "You can put your finger on one leak and say, 'Okay, we're going to pseudoephedrine control.' But then the problem pops up in another area. Unless you've got a comprehensive strategy, you're always going to be doing that."

Unfortunately, Szczepanski might as well be describing Arizona. And unless someone pulls together a group of people working on the front lines -- treatment experts, veterans from the state's anti-smoking campaign and police officers -- it's hard to imagine that's going to change.

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