Drug Money 

Meth war's money matters raise questions

You've seen the ads. The meth baby, the meth pimp, the meth dealer ... Finally, a gaunt, scabby-faced fiend warns the curious not to use the drug, "Not even once."

It's the Idaho Meth Project's push to steer Idaho's youth away from a drug that numbs users and strains state resources to the tune of $66 million a year in incarceration costs, according to the project. IMP hammered the anti-meth message forward last month with a third wave of dark, multimedia public service messages and a request to inject the campaign with additional state dollars.

The ad campaign portraying meth addicts in the most grisly conditions was boosted by an in-house report that touted the project as a strong deterrent to future drug use. But the campaign has some Idahoans, lawmakers and drug policy experts wondering if the in-your-face ads are an effective use of state dollars.

IMP officials say the $3.5 million ad campaign launched in 2008 has already yielded results: Young people report that they're less likely to touch the drug, according to research released by IMP in January.

"We certainly believe the campaign has had a significant impact in the way young people view this drug. Teens and young adults tell us they believe there's great risk in using meth," said IMP Executive Director Megan Ronk. "And they're specifically telling us that the Idaho Meth Project's ads that they've seen make them less likely to try meth."

But there's no independent source to support IMP's findings. And research on similar anti-drug campaigns casts doubt over the efficacy of the project's gruesome, scare-tactic approach to keeping Idahoans meth-free.

The Idaho public even has doubts about the program. Cutting funding for IMP was one of the public's top suggestions for saving state money on a Web site launched by Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, efficiency.idaho.gov.

But the project doesn't draw from general funds or tax-based revenue. Still, it depends on the support of lawmakers and policy leaders.

"I think there's been some misinformation about where our funding really comes from," Ronk said.

Roughly 45 percent of the program's money comes from the state Millennium Fund, money set aside from the tobacco settlement to finance drug and tobacco abuse prevention and treatment programs. The remainder of IMP's budget comes from donations. The project has drawn about $1.5 million from the Millennium Fund since it began, and must apply for funds annually through the Joint Millennium Fund Committee's grant-like application process. The Legislature's Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee must approve final allocations.

In February, an appropriations request meeting left IMP officials defending the program as members of the Millennium Fund Committee questioned efficiency.

"Last year, there were some reports that circulated around the Legislature that called into question the effectiveness of the program," said Idaho Falls Republican Rep. Janice McGeachin. "When you see these things, it forces us to stop and say, 'Is this the right way to spend money?'"

McGeachin suggested the committee fund only about half of IMP's $500,000 appropriations request.

The project competes for funds with other programs aimed at reducing the abuse of drugs, including prescription drugs and alcohol. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration notes that meth-related crimes have steadily declined in recent years and the number of meth labs in Idaho decreased from 90 in 2003 to 11 in 2007, although some attribute the decline to measures that have limited manufacturing and distribution.

IMP also earned one of the lowest performance rankings--13 out of 16--of anti-drug programs vying for funds this year. But it still received its full $500,000 funding request, and as of press time, the appropriation was awaiting final approval from JFAC.

Commissioned studies give IMP credit for changing attitudes about meth. A January survey paid for by IMP reports that teens are 11 percent more likely to see meth use as a "great risk" compared to 2007 reports. Teens are also more likely to associate meth with brain damage, insomnia and tooth decay, according to the survey.

The Montana Meth Project lauded its own campaign, launched in 2005, citing data from in-house reports that portrayed MMP as a success. But an independent review of these early reports found support for the campaign was weak and research methods lacked validity.

According to a 2008 Prevention Science article, the MMP campaign was actually associated with increased acceptance of meth and a decrease in the perceived danger. The article's author, David M. Erceg-Hurn of the University of Western Australia wrote, "On the basis of current evidence, continued public funding and roll-out of Montana-style methamphetamine programs is unadvisable."

Erceg-Hurn's data analysis found that MMP misrepresented its research, only publishing data that supported the campaign's agenda. He found that it excluded findings showing the number of people who believed there was no risk associated with meth use almost doubled. Other research flaws included inconsistent sampling methods.

Ronk said the IMP has had the benefit of being a few years behind the MMP, letting them learn from the mistakes.

While addiction experts don't question the motives of the project, noting that prevention has the potential to save dollars that might be spent on the treatment and incarceration, some still question if such campaigns are effective.

A 2008 University of Missouri study found that anti-tobacco ads based on fear or disgust are counterproductive as they decrease viewers' attention and memory.

Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said that ads based on fear tactics can lead viewers to believe that the effects of a particular drug are being exaggerated. And kids may begin to think that they're being lied to by the prevention campaign.

"People will tune out," Piper said. "So they just killed their message."

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