An expensive habit

State pledges $2 million to Montana Meth Project

Consider it official: Montanans are hooked on the Montana Meth Project (MMP). They’re also poised to be on the hook—to the tune of $2 million—for the anti-meth campaign thus far funded by billionaire Tom Siebel, who launched the project in 2005 as an attempt to “un-sell” the drug to teens.

Montana’s state senate voted April 11 to double the $1 million of public funding Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s budget proposed for MMP, now the state’s largest advertiser with a multimedia effort based on graphic images tied to its “not even once” slogan. The appropriations bill that carves out money for the MMP has yet to be finalized, but the funding is expected to easily survive negotiations with Montana’s House of Representatives, which initially wanted even more state money to go toward the campaign.

Given the high-profile backing the campaign has received from the likes of Schweitzer, Attorney General Mike McGrath and White House Drug Czar John Walters, it’s not surprising to see support echoed among legislators. However, the dedication of 2 million public dollars to the private campaign signals a new stage of this state’s relationship with MMP. It’s an investment that concerns opposing legislators, as well as some professionals working in the meth prevention and treatment arena.

“The problem is we’re not making decisions based on facts—this is an emotional thing, and they have all the right people lined up behind Tom Siebel, but I don’t think they’re being very smart,” says Mona Sumner, clinical director of Billings’ Rimrock Foundation, Montana’s oldest and largest nonprofit addiction treatment center. “[Legislators] are all sort of assuming this kind of campaign is going to work and I’m saying ‘Folks, the research behind media campaigns of this kind have all shown they don’t work.’”

Sumner is referring to research like that performed by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which reported in 2006 that $1.2 billion spent between 1998 and 2004 on the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s anti-drug media campaign was utterly ineffective.

Sumner believes it’s foolish to dedicate state money to an unproven campaign, especially given competing needs: “We should be spending our money on what we know works,” Sumner says. “We don’t have money to throw away in Montana and we don’t have the data to show that the Montana Meth Project is worth millions of state money.”

The response from MMP and supporters is that this campaign can’t be compared to anti-drug campaigns of old due to its gritty, market-based approach.

“The reason I believe the Montana Meth Project has been effective is because they run high-quality ads that are biting, edgy messages at a saturation level,” says McGrath. “That’s why the meth project is different from any other prevention campaign, and in my view that’s why it’s effective.”

McGrath is clear in his belief that no single approach to meth prevention can cover the gamut of needs, just as law enforcement, addiction treatment and education are all crucial pillars for curtailing meth’s presence in Montana. Peg Shea, executive director of MMP, seconds McGrath’s call for a chorus of solutions.

Montana has already undertaken several efforts toward that end, such as securing pseudoephedrine behind pharmacy counters, increasing law enforcement, creating treatment centers for those twice convicted of meth possession (the Lewistown facility for female addicts opened April 10, while the Boulder facility for males opens in June). And the state’s poised to take more steps, including funding community-based meth treatment for the first time, Sumner says.

Montana’s variety of anti-meth efforts makes judging the efficacy of any particular one more difficult. So does the fact that meth use among teens, as measured by the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, has been dropping in Montana since 1999—six years before MMP launched. While McGrath and Shea both believe MMP is changing attitudes and increasing community dialogue about meth, they agree MMP hasn’t run long enough to gauge its success in hard statistics. However, that moderate tenor hasn’t carried the day in Helena, where claims of MMP’s unrivaled success buttress legislators’ appropriations votes.

“I could throw a lot of statistics at you, but the bottom line is there is a direct correlation between the Montana Meth Project media campaign and a major drop in meth usage in this state,” Rep. Roger Koopman, R-Bozeman, told fellow legislators April 12, after citing the false statistic that MMP triggered a 38-percent drop in meth use among teens. (MMP’s own surveys show usage has remained stable since 2005.) Koopman successfully convinced the House to support his bill offering $4 million to MMP, but that bill was tabled in the Senate in favor of the $2 million appropriation.

Others express their commitment to MMP regardless of statistics.

“This is such a horrible drug that if one child is kept from being hooked on it, then it is worth the money,” Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, wrote in an e-mail interview. “I do not care whether the statistics are available yet or not, I believe that the program works.”

Such an unshakable commitment to MMP’s campaign is what concerns people like Kirk Astroth, director of the Montana 4-H Center for Youth Development, which created a meth education program called Tools for Schools that is distributed statewide. While he appreciates MMP’s efforts to raise public awareness, Astroth seconds Sumner’s point by saying “public awareness campaigns have never been shown to change long-term behavior.” Additionally, he’s concerned that the MMP’s saturation in this state lends the impression that meth is Montana’s most pressing issue, though usage has been on the decline, and alcohol is consistently the number one drug of choice.

It’s one thing, he says, for a wealthy philanthropist to decide how to spend his cash, but another thing entirely for the state to buy into a private campaign to the tune of 2 million public dollars.

At this point, though, Montana legislators are prepared to make the leap and begin funneling tax dollars toward MMP. Coming months and years will yield more data about the wisdom of that decision and whether a public relationship with this private campaign is worth the investment, but for the time being, Montanans can consider themselves MMP’s new benefactors.

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