Smoke and Mirrors

Meth ads aren't silver bullet


Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter is soliciting donations of hundreds of thousands of dollars and free media time to accommodate the in-your-face ad campaign named for the state where it started: The Montana Meth Project.

Started by millionaire Tom Siebel after he heard about how meth addiction ravages bodies, families and communities, the Montana Meth Project is a product of the MTV generation. Its slick, harrowing ads feature actors covered in scabs, their teeth rotted, all with one message: try meth, even once, and this is how you'll end up.

Montana jumped in big in 2005, with Siebel's help. The state started a $5.5 million campaign, with the gnarly ads appearing on billboards, airwaves and print media all across the state.

More than a year later, officials in Montana have told Idaho leaders, who gathered two weeks ago at the former Simplot mansion for the pitch, that the gritty ads are just the thing to nip a meth crisis in the bud. Siebel's promise: The ads are effective. According to research paid for by Siebel, the ads have helped contribute to a withering interest in methamphetamine in Montana. Just days before the Idaho meeting, Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath released a report--done in conjunction with the Montana Meth Project--saying that meth use in that state was on the wane: The Montana Board of Crime Control showed 284 meth seizures in 2006, compared with 583 in 2005.

But, ads aside, federal researchers say methamphetamine use has been on the wane for years. Research from the Office of National Drug Control Policy shows that teen drug use has declined by 23 percent since 2001, in a report released in December 2006. Teen use of methamphetamine, in particular, dropped significantly. In fact, the office noted that past-month use of methamphetamine dropped by 50 percent since 2001.

"There has been a substance abuse sea change among American teens," said John Walters, the director of national drug control policy, in a prepared statement.

In Idaho, those numbers are tracking the national trends, without a single ad against meth getting placed. According to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey from the Centers for Disease Control, the number of Idaho students who used meth one or more times in their life went from 7.2 percent in 2001 to 5.3 percent in 2005.

None of which is to say that Idaho can rest on its drug policy laurels. Former Gov. Jim Risch appointed Boise City Councilor Jim Tibbs to the newly created post of "drug czar" last year because he said the state's drug prevention efforts were out of whack. Tibbs delivered backup on that point in a report he filed after three months on the job: Idaho, he said, has more than 133 different government-sponsored substance abuse programs.

According to the Idaho Legislature's office of performance evaluation, the state is a long way from a comprehensive strategy. A 2005 review of the four state agencies that have a role in substance abuse prevention had few positive things to say about the state's ability to coordinate its anti-drug efforts.

"I have to tell you, that evaluation helped us," said Otter's drug policy chief Debbie Field who, incidentally, asked for the report when she was a legislator. "We weren't managing it wisely. There are still many of those recommendations to improve operations that have not been made."

Field--who has abandoned the term "drug czar"--said she has become a big fan of drug courts, the county-level combination of enforcement, treatment and monitoring of drug offenders.

"They work," Field said. "[Offenders] get treatment, they actually get tested. They get help to return to a normal life. We didn't have to look far to see that it was a really good model." Field has also visited with treatment call centers, met with lawmakers, and with federal law enforcement agencies.

"It's nonstop," she said.

Statistically, meth may not be Idaho's biggest problem. According to data from the Idaho State Police, the most popular drug in possession of arrestees between 1998 and 2004 was marijuana, by about 67 percent. Methamphetamine was the second-most-commonly held by arrestees, but at less than half the rate of marijuana, at 32 percent.

More to the point, some in the field of drug prevention and counseling say that the target audience for the advertisements--kids--have a B.S. meter that is quick to detect hyperbole and paranoia from adults.

"They'll say, 'I've talked to kids who've used it once and they're not addicted,'" said Georgia Girvan, the director of Boise State's Regional Alcohol Drug Awareness Resource Center, a clearinghouse of information for agencies and individuals looking for information about drug abuse and prevention. Research from the state's Interagency Committee on Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment shows that teen meth use is still eclipsed by the oldest poison around: alcohol.

Also, Idaho's meth users are a little older, according to the state Department of Health and Welfare. Meth arrest subjects are predominately adult offenders, according to spokesman Ross Mason. The average age for arrestees, he said, was 30 years old. Some treatment counselors say they deal with older cocaine addicts who turned to meth when coke became too difficult, or too expensive, to obtain. Marti Hooper, who runs the for-profit Safe Havens drug treatment centers in Caldwell and Ontario, has doubts about the ads, too.

"I'd rather have the money for treatment than a billboard," Hooper said.

The ads made a big splash in Montana, but that state's attorney general was quick to point out that the state has been aggressive in more tangible ways, too: In 2005, the Montana Legislature passed regulation of meth precursor ingredients like pseudoephedrine, found in many common cold remedies, and established new options for treatment, whether through drug court programs or prison-based programs.

"I've said more than once that Montana passed the most comprehensive package of methamphetamine-related legislation in the country in 2005," McGrath told reporters last month.

Idaho, Field said, has a ways to go just coordinating its efforts before it advances new policy. She sees the ads as one part of a larger effort, and has decided that the ads are the best cause for private donors.

"We'll do everything we can do to make people aware, and we'll do that with private funds," she said. "Then we'll take government funds and funnel them toward treatment and testing. The public awareness campaign is valuable. But the most valuable part is what we do."

Nonetheless, she has set a goal of March 1 to raise $500,000 to help pay for the advertisements. Already, she said, KTVB Channel 7 has committed to give the ads some free air time. Outdoor advertising companies have said they'll give the ads reduced fees. And one man has donated about $135,000 toward the effort, she said. The goal is to launch the ads in May, she said. And when they do, the media drumbeat about the ads will continue. Already CNN has expressed interest in the Idaho story.

"We know about the problems," Field said. "We are focused on the solutions."