Prairie Lights: Millions later, the ‘meth epidemic’ is back

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And so on, ad infinitum.

If you’ve been following the news in Montana at all recently, you know that methamphetamine use is once again a terrible problem.

Just last month, the Billings Gazette ran a story with a headline that said, “Meth possession spikes while other crimes stay steady.” The story quoted Police Chief Rich St. John, who said this about the near-record number of murders: “There’s a common denominator, and it’s usually methamphetamine.”

Ed

Ed Kemmick

A few weeks before that, the Gazette reported that the number of abuse and neglect cases dealt with by Montana courts had doubled between 2009 and 2015. Billings had the distinction of dealing with more than 500 such cases, the first time a single judicial district had topped the 500 mark.

“What we’re hearing from judges,” said Beth McLaughlin, the Montana Supreme Court administrator, “is most of the growth is related to an increase in methamphetamine and heroin.”

And just a few days before that, a Missoula television station reported that “meth-related crime in Missoula saw a sharp increase in 2015.”

That’s a lot of bad news, but the Montana Meth Project wants you to know it has some good news.

The MMP announced last week that it was inviting Montana filmmakers to create a 30-second anti-meth commercial, with the winner receiving a $20,000 prize and nationwide air time.

A story in the Helena Independent Record said the Montana Meth Project was looking for “impactful” commercials. It went on, obviously quoting from a press release: “Previous Meth Project commercials have influenced viewers through graphic, hard-hitting campaigns that followed young adults from first-time users to full-blown addicts as a means of educating people about the dangers of using methamphetamine.”

The Montana Meth Project has been flooding the state with relentless, ubiquitous multimedia advertising since 2005, with the result that we are now experiencing a meth epidemic that is placing unprecedented demands on law enforcement and social service agencies.

I suppose it’s irresistible, given all the money offered, but I would urge Montana filmmakers not to take part in this long-running charade. Don’t allow your good work to be used to advance the vanity project of a billionaire who doesn’t seem to care whether his efforts are having the slightest effect on anybody.

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I am referring, of course, to Tom Siebel, the software mogul who evidently decided to launch his quixotic project because he owned a lot of land in Montana, and he saw that his adopted state was awash in meth. His thinking seems to have been that if he could throw millions at the problem in a small-population state and it really had an effect, he could then expand it elsewhere in the country.

The ad campaign certainly had an effect on the owners of newspapers, television stations and billboards, and as I reported in 2009, one San Francisco ad agency alone was paid more than $5 million by the Montana Meth Project between 2005 and 2007.

Based on questionable research commissioned by the project, and on cherry-picked statistics from legitimate studies, the Montana Meth Project consistently made extravagant claims about its success, even as critics pointed out that its real accomplishments were, at best, negligible.

For starters, just read the Wikipedia page on the Montana Meth Project. It starts off on a positive note but then quite thoroughly lays bare all the B.S. upon which the project’s claims were built.

Worse yet, as I reported in 2014, is that the MMP simply refuses to acknowledge any research that contradicts Siebel’s unshakable belief in the efficacy of what he’s doing. My story was about research done by an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics at Montana State University, who found that the MMP’s effects on meth use were “statistically indistinguishable from zero.”

This report was a follow-up to earlier research he’d done on the same subject. By the time he’d written the second study, he had abandoned his naïve belief that the MMP would be interested in his findings. He was simply ignored.

At least the MMP is not, as far as I can tell, receiving any public funding, as it did for several years. Its most recent tax-exempt filings, for 2014, listed total revenues as $261,887, all in the form of gifts, grants and contributions.

Of that, a little less than half went to the salary of the project’s director, Amy Rue, who was paid $127,610 that year.

The MMP isn’t even trying to make its case with new figures anymore. Its website lists numbers that were once questionable and are now laughable: since 2005, they say, adult meth use is down 72 percent and meth-related crimes are down 62 percent.

Tell that to the cops, the judges, the social workers.

I know a lot of people figure, what’s the harm? Let Siebel spend his money if he wants to. At the very least it raises awareness and maybe it’ll keep a few kids off meth.

But what if real efforts to reduce meth use have been hampered by the perception that Siebel was taking care of it for us, that there was nothing else we needed to do? Maybe ignoring all those experts who for years have been raising questions about the Montana Meth Project wasn’t a good idea.

Maybe filling the state with Reefer Madness-style slogans and crude paintings plastered on barns, silos, storefronts and billboards just made the state a little uglier, a little seedier, and didn’t do a damned thing to reduce meth use.

So all you filmmakers out there, please ignore this latest contest. Instead, how about this: Let’s see who can create the best 30-second commercial that says something positive, uplifting and inspirational, something that might give a young person hope, instead of another bombardment of grotesque images.

The first prize will be our thanks, and the knowledge that you perhaps will have accomplished more than the Montana Meth Project, with all its millions, has accomplished in the past 11 years.

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