Longform

Meth Madness

The voice wafting over the airwaves is identified only as Jen, 15.

In the flat tone of someone who's seen it all and hated every minute, Jen describes first using crystal meth as an 11-year-old.

Later, while using, Jen got raped, but she didn't report it, didn't even seem to care. After all, her rapist provided her with more drugs.

"That's when I started selling my body for meth," Jen says. "I don't know anyone who's quit using meth after they tried it a couple times, or just once."

It's a theme that's repeated, again and again, in the radio and television advertisements from the Montana Meth Project. Don't do it once, or you'll get hooked.

Each ad's tag line drives the point home: "Meth: Not even once."

The $5.5 million campaign, developed and funded privately by a software billionaire, launched in Montana last fall. It's been hailed by media across the nation as a brilliant and bold solution to the nation's meth problem -- in the words of journalists from New York to Missoula, a "shockingly graphic," "powerful" set of words and images that's virtually saturated Montana's airwaves and which is sure to show big results.

Arizona's leaders, who have been struggling with this state's own meth problem, couldn't help but notice. And now a team led by Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard and Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley wants to use an estimated $5.7 million in government funds to run the Montana advertisements here.

Three Arizona officials, including Stapley, flew to Montana last week to meet with the project's leaders. While the money hasn't yet been appropriated, the deal seems ready to close almost solely on its own adrenaline.

"I just don't think we have time to waste," Goddard told the Arizona Republic in a story published April 17.

But once again, it seems as if local leaders are grasping desperately at a solution to the meth epidemic that may sound great, but doesn't actually hold up under scrutiny.

Last year it was the idea that restricting sales of cold medicine will dry up the state's meth problem. Similar laws have now been passed in 28 Arizona cities; there's no evidence that use has declined ("The New Meth," March 30).

And while prevention is, indeed, an important piece of any serious strategy to deal with meth use, seizing onto the Montana project is the latest example of expecting an easy solution for a complex problem.

At the time when Goddard made his remarks to the Republic last week, the Montana Meth Project had yet to release any serious statistical analysis.

But now the data is out. And the state senator who first made contact with staffers at the Montana project, John Huppenthal, R-Chandler, is now expressing serious doubts about a number of the ads and their focus.

There's good reason for that. The Montana Meth Project's own survey, released for the first time April 19, hardly paints a glowing picture of success.

Instead, the survey indicates that, after the ads blanketed the airwaves in Montana for seven months -- at a cost of millions of dollars -- Montana teens are actually less likely to associate trying meth with "great" or "moderate" risk. The same teens were also less likely to associate those risk levels with regular use.

Some specifics: Before the ads ran, 96 percent of Montana teens 12 to 17 thought there was "great or moderate" risk associated with regular meth use.

After seven months of seeing the ads, however, only 91 percent thought the risk level was that high. And a full 8 percent reported that there was "no risk" to regular meth use -- an increase of 5 percent from the pre-campaign number.

Both changes, according to the researchers hired by the Montana Meth Project, are statistically significant.

That doesn't surprise Richard Rawson. As associate director of the UCLA Integrated Substance Abuse Programs, he's been studying meth addiction for years. He's also the point man on meth for the National Institute of Drug Addiction, part of the National Institutes of Health.

To him, the problem is the very core of the campaign: the idea that if, like 11-year-old Jen, you try meth once, you're going to get hooked.

The ads are a "classic example," Rawson says, of the Reefer Madness-style anti-drug ads that tend to backfire on savvy teens.

By the time they're 14 or 15, some of them surely know someone who's tried meth once. And maybe those kids aren't hooked. Maybe they seem just fine.

The viewers' own personal experience may convince them that the ads are gross exaggerations, Rawson says. And at that point, the very real message that should be getting through -- that using meth is apt to destroy your life -- is lost.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske