Caitlin first tried methamphetamine when she was 15 years old. At the time, “I didn’t even know what it was,” but she was a teenager seeking peer approval, and didn’t want to reveal her ignorance. So, she tried the powder anyway, snorting the two lines her friend had laid out without stopping to ask questions.
Although Caitlin had previously flirted with alcohol and marijuana at parties, she had never before used an exceptionally addictive drug like methamphetamine, and became hooked right away.
“Immediately I felt great, on top of the world. We went back to school, and I studied hard. I had a lot of energy. It lasted for quite some time, and I thought, ‘I’ve found it—I’ve found what I was looking for.’”
Like Caitlin, Lee had experimented with alcohol and marijuana prior to trying methamphetamine the summer before her senior year of high school. She, too, was hanging out with new friends who introduced her to “recreational” methamphetamine.
These friends also introduced her to her future employer and drug provider, a man who self-medicated his bipolarity and multiple sclerosis with methamphetamine. With easy access to the drug and with the approval of her new social group, Lee quickly developed a full-blown addiction to methamphetamine—or, as it is called by users, “meth.”
“It is a euphoric experience. You can ignore human necessities like eating and sleeping, so you become non-human, super-human.”
Methamphetamine: The Lure and the Darker Reality
For uninformed potential users like Caitlin and Lee, methamphetamine has a certain allure. It is commonly believed to be safer and less addictive than drugs like cocaine and heroin, and thus seemingly offers a maximum “rush” for a minimal cost. Methamphetamine use also significantly reduces a person’s need for food and sleep, effects which have driven the drug’s traditional popularity among women hoping to lose weight and among truck drivers, who use it to drive for hours without stopping to rest.
These perceived benefits, however, mask the drug’s darker reality.
In Montana, Caitlin and Lee’s home state, meth use has been tied to a disproportionate number of crimes and has had significant economic implications throughout the state. At the individual level, methamphetamine has destroyed families, friendships and futures as users’ priorities shift from strengthening personal relationships to obtaining more of the drug.
Though methamphetamine affects urban communities as well, it has a proportionally greater influence in rural areas. In a survey conducted between 2002 and 2005, the Department of Health and Human Services found that Montana was tied (with Wyoming) for the second-highest rate of methamphetamine consumption among persons aged 12 and older, trailing only Nevada. Rounding out the top five states were Idaho and Nebraska.
Suppliers usually set up “mom and pop” labs in homes or cars, and the relative isolation of rural areas makes it easier for these labs—and the toxic waste they produce—to escape detection. Moreover, because many suppliers are based locally, methamphetamine is far easier to access in rural areas than imported drugs like cocaine.
One Philanthropist Decides to Fight Back
In 2005, Tom Siebel, chairman of the Thomas and Stacey Siebel Foundation, grew tired of Montana’s methamphetamine problem—and decided to take action.
Having lived in Montana part-time for more than three decades, Siebel was already invested in his community. He owned and operated two cattle ranches—Dearborn Ranch in Wolf Creek and N Bar Ranch in Grass Range—and, through the Siebel Foundation, had already given extensively within the state to combat hunger and homelessness, promote conservation, and build a dinosaur-focused complex at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman.
Siebel, the founder and former CEO of Siebel Systems, created the Siebel Foundation in 1996 to support education, the homeless and wildlife habitats across the nation. Over the past seven years, the foundation has worked with organizations like the Salvation Army; the Montana Land Reliance, which works to preserve the state’s land and wildlife; and First Tee of San Francisco and Monterey County, which provides golf-based learning and development programs to at-risk youth.
In 1999, Siebel created the Siebel Scholars program, which gives $25,000 scholarships every year to 50 graduate students pursuing master’s degrees in business and computer science at eight universities, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northwestern, Stanford, Harvard, University of Chicago, Carnegie Mellon, University of California at Berkeley, and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In addition to the scholarship program, Siebel also made a $32-million donation to build a new research and education facility for the department of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and pledged $100 million to establish the Siebel Fund for Excellence in Science and Engineering for the university to use on research in areas such as alternative energy, bioengineering and stem cell research.
When Siebel first considered taking on Montana’s methamphetamine problem, the state had one of the highest rates of use in the nation.
“When you spend time in Montana, it’s impossible not to become aware of it,” he says. “You read about it in the newspaper every day, you see the bust of the methamphetamine labs, the discussion of methamphetamine-related crime, all the hand-wringing about the fact that all the prisons are full, the toxic cleanup associated with meth labs, and the horrific crime of the day. It’s all in graphic detail.”
Siebel also noticed that both Montana and the federal government were treating the methamphetamine crisis primarily as a supply-side issue, relying on law enforcement, legislation and regulations to fight the problem.
A supply-focused strategy, however, can ignore the popular demand for the drug. With continuing demand, production and distribution inevitably persists as drug dealers find creative ways to evade the law, placing an increasingly heavy burden on police and sheriffs.
And methamphetamine is very easy to produce: “recipes” are available on the internet, and the drug can be “cooked” in moveable laboratories (some as small as a suitcase) with ingredients as common as drain cleaner, battery acid, antifreeze, and pseudoephedrine-based cold medicines like Sudafed.
Through a friendship he had previously developed with a Cascade County, Montana, sheriff, Siebel had already heard firsthand about the challenges facing local law enforcement officials in the fight against methamphetamine—including the fact that sheriffs routinely spent significant parts of their time fighting supply by finding methamphetamine labs and busting the dealers.
“I thought there might be a better way to address this problem than dealing with it as a law enforcement and incarceration matter.”
Thus Siebel’s anti-meth vision was born: a prevention program targeting potential first-time methamphetamine users that would deter them from trying the drug even once.
Siebel’s emphasis on reducing demand for methamphetamine made economic sense, reducing costs of incarceration and lost productivity.
Moreover, the process of “cooking” meth has substantial environmental costs: For each pound of meth created, a drug lab will generate approximately six pounds of toxic waste. In 2003 alone, cleanups of methamphetamine labs cost Montana more than $1 million—a number that could not be reduced by law enforcement’s emphasis on arresting suppliers after they had created their clandestine labs.
Talking About Risk – A Demand-Side Approach
When Siebel began thinking about starting a demand-reduction program, there were no large-scale methamphetamine prevention models to follow. Instead, he drew inspiration from the American Cancer Society’s decades-long public campaign against smoking, a campaign he was very familiar with, having come from a family of smokers. The ACS efforts, Siebel realized, effectively communicated the risks associated with cigarette use to the American public and helped people make informed consumer decisions about smoking.
Siebel approached methamphetamine as a consumer product. “People make consumption decisions that are pretty rational based on their views of perceived benefits, perceived risk, societal norms and cost,” he says. “I thought, why don’t we find a way to communicate to the potential consumer—as accurately as we might be able—the real risks and benefits associated with this product in the hope that, if they understood the risks associated with the product, they would make a better informed product consumption decision.”
Facing the Reality of Meth’s Costs
After their initial euphoric experiences with methamphetamine, both Caitlin and Lee quickly became familiar with some of the risks of the drug: lost weight, lost friendships with non-users and the loss of their parents’ trust.
Because she was using meth in the evening, Caitlin would regularly stay up all night, only to fall asleep in her high school classes during the day. Her grades dropped and, after warnings from teachers, she was suspended from school. The drug also gave Caitlin a strangely heightened focus, and she would spend hours sitting on the floor of her bedroom drawing intricate designs or standing in front of her mirror picking at acne on her face that wasn’t really there.
Lee was also sleeping at odd hours of the day—if at all—and was dedicating a significant chunk of her time to writing nonsensical things, using her writing as a “creative outlet.”
As Caitlin and Lee learned, the short-term consequences of methamphetamine use vary from person to person. In addition to the girls’ symptoms, however, many addicts also experience suicidal and homicidal thoughts and tendencies; others have incessant sensations of insects and parasites running under their skin, leading them to scratch themselves until they develop large scabs; still others report “meth mouth,” a degenerative dental condition caused both by the chemicals in the drug and by users’ continual grinding of teeth.
Over the long-term, habitual methamphetamine abuse may have lasting consequences even after an addict has stopped using the drug, including schizophrenia- and Parkinson’s-like symptoms and brain damage. And because the drug reduces sexual inhibitions while increasing libido, methamphetamine users are at a significantly higher risk for sexually transmitted diseases.
Methamphetamine also directly affects a user’s normal neurotransmission—the body’s communication system between its brain and nerve cells that controls thoughts and other bodily systems—and, specifically, dopamine, which regulates the body’s ability to experience pleasure and contentment. A meth addict’s body will thus feel significantly fewer rewards from normal social interactions than a non-addict—and significantly more rewards from continued drug abuse.
In a report published earlier this year, Montana’s attorney general Mike McGrath noted that “the societal and financial costs of methamphetamine use in Montana are devastating.” More than half of children in the state’s foster care system were placed there because their parents were using or dealing the drug, while 50 percent of Montana’s adult prison population was incarcerated because of meth-related crimes. When work-related and secondary social effects are added to direct costs, methamphetamine costs Montana about $100 million each year.
Taking a New Approach to an Old Problem
Siebel hoped to find a way to broadcast these real costs of methamphetamine addiction to Montana’s public.
With this in mind, he created the Meth Project, a program initiated by the Siebel Foundation. A research-based prevention effort, the Meth Project combines two unique strategies to reduce the demand for methamphetamine: measurements of public attitudes about the drug, and responsive messaging based on survey results.
In September 2005, following a $5.6-million initial contribution from the Siebel Foundation—contributions would total more than $15 million by the end of 2006—Montana became the pilot state for the Meth Project.
“Montana has a problem representative of other states, but at the same time has the advantage of being relatively isolated and having a relatively small population,” Siebel explains. “We could afford to experiment there. We had the idea that if we could achieve a significant impact in the state of Montana, we might be able to develop an overall prevention methodology that other states would want to adopt.”
The launch of the Montana Meth Project followed a six-month survey in the state, during which time more than 1,200 people responded. The research revealed a number of problems facing Montana in 2005. Meth was easy to find, and was not considered a dangerous drug. Many teenagers had friends who were using it. Parents rarely discussed methamphetamine with their children.
With a better understanding of the problem, the Montana Meth Project began an aggressive marketing campaign to “unsell” methamphetamine, using often-graphic radio, television and billboard advertisements to portray the negative effects of meth use.
Under the catchy slogan “Not Even Once,” the project has stuck to Siebel’s initial vision: It is primarily focused on potential first-time users with the goal of deterring them from experimenting. Although the advertisements have shocked most people who have seen them, they have delivered a strong, memorable message to the targeted population of 12- to 17-year-olds.
One print ad, for example, shows a bloody, middle-aged woman collapsed next to a kitchen sink, with a block-letter caption declaring, “My mom knows I’d never hurt her. . .then she got in the way.” Another depicts a half-dressed teenage couple with vacant stares sitting on the floor of a hotel room, under a caption reading, “My girlfriend would do anything for me. . .so I made her sell her body.”
The Montana Meth radio advertisements consist of stark personal testimonies given by Montana teenagers about their own addictions to methamphetamine. In one, a 17-year-old girl describes the physical effects of her own addiction: “I was chewing gum and there were little pieces of something in my gum and I took it out and it was my tooth. My back teeth are gone because they just crumbled into bits and pieces. My hair was falling out in huge clumps. My eyelashes were falling out.” In another, Andrew, a 19-year-old boy from Paulsen, Montana, describes how he hanged himself from a tree to escape his addiction. After his father cut the rope, Andrew remembers “waking up and just being pissed off I was still alive.”
The television ads tend to be even more graphic and disturbing than the print and radio campaigns, and officials have requested that they play on TV only after 7:00 p.m. One spot, called “Junkie Den,” shows a young boy trying meth for the first time with a friend on a porch. The ad then moves to a darkened room, where the boy is surrounded by older, dirty, bloodied addicts who congratulate him, saying “You did it, kid. You’re in. You’re one of us now. . .we’re going shooting up together, we’re going to steal together, we’re going to sleep together. . .you are going to love every single minute.” The boy protests by saying he’s trying it “just this once.” His companions pause, then start laughing cynically.
By using a variety of print, radio and television spots in its advertising campaign, Siebel’s initial goal was total saturation of the media market with the Montana Meth Project’s message. It worked. On its launch in September 2005, the Montana Meth Project immediately became the state’s biggest advertiser. It has also effectively reached its target: 74 percent of teens, 70 percent of young adults and 76 percent of parents in Montana see or hear anti-methamphetamine ads at least once a week.
Paint the State: Involving Montana’s Teens
Following the successes of its early advertising campaigns, the Montana Meth Project decided to focus on more actively engaging the state community and, in May 2006, launched a public art contest called “Paint the State.” Siebel challenged Montana teenagers between the ages of 13 and 18 to create highly visible anti-meth artwork—using whatever medium they wanted—that incorporated the Project’s slogan “Meth: Not Even Once,” and offered $300,000 in total prize money.
Montana’s teens took him up on the offer.
They submitted more than 660 works of art, including sculptures, murals, videos and photographs.
They painted bales of hay, teepees, outhouses, cars, dumpsters and t-shirts. They even got their hands on farm animals, painting two cows and a sheep.
Through it all, the participating teenagers learned more about the drug and its dangers. Brandon, 17, interviewed former meth addicts before starting his project—and discovered that their arms had deteriorated from repeated injections of battery acid-based methamphetamine.
The contest also provided a forum in which parents and teenagers could freely talk about the consequences of meth addiction, an important part of any plan to reduce drug use among teens.
“I used to have a typical relationship with my teenage son,” commented one anonymous parent after Paint the State. “We didn’t talk often, and we didn’t always see eye-to-eye. When we worked on this project, we talked for hours.”
Given the high visibility of the artwork, Paint the State also stimulated conversation among non-participants, including previously addicted truckers, who would stop to chat with teens about their own experiences with methamphetamine while the teens were setting up their anti-meth projects on the sides of roads.
Meth Use Fades in the Face of an Advertising Onslaught
Through its heavy advertising and community involvement campaigns, the Montana Meth Project has been able to communicate successfully the true costs of methamphetamine addiction to potential consumers. But has communication been able to truly “unsell” the drug to teenagers, as Siebel initially intended?
In a report published in January 2007, Methamphetamine in Montana: A Preliminary Report on Trends and Impact, Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath wrote that “clearly, the highly visible prevention campaign conducted by the Montana Meth Project has had an enormous impact.”
The report includes statistical data compiled from drug task force incident reports, law enforcement statistics, crime lab reports, survey results, interviews with participating agencies, and hospital discharge and admission information.
Among other findings, the report discovered that 73 percent of Montana teens believe that using methamphetamine just once or twice is a “great risk,” compared with only 54 percent of teens nationwide.
Even more importantly, a number of statistics from the report directly point to a significant decline in actual methamphetamine use since the Montana Meth Project first began its ad campaign in 2005: Methamphetamine use in the workplace, as measured by random drug tests, has declined by 70 percent since 2005—the largest decline in the nation; meth-related crime has declined 53 percent; and meth-positive arrests have dropped 44 percent.
Moreover, according to findings published by the Montana Meth Project in its 2007 Meth Use & Attitudes Survey, there was a 20-percent decrease in the number of young adults who reported having friends who used methamphetamine when compared with the previous year.
Anecdotal evidence also points to positive results.
“They’ve worked well as a scare tactic, and students don’t want to try meth—not even once. They don’t want to turn out like the commercials,” comments Raylene Franklin, a drug and alcohol counselor who has worked with both adult methamphetamine addicts and high school students. Moreover, she notes, adult addicts “really feel like the radio ads and the commercials are realistic and appropriate.”
Applying the Montana Model Across the Country
Siebel is pleased with the initial results. “I think this has been a very interesting and enormously rewarding exercise. If these data continue to hold up, this will be the most efficacious prevention program in history. We’re hopeful we can apply this measurement and messaging technology in other states and achieve similar results.”
Thus far, Idaho, Illinois and Arizona have indeed looked to Montana as a model for methamphetamine prevention, and all are working with the Meth Project to develop their own statewide campaigns. The Meth Project has licensed its intellectual property and methodology—including the media campaign—to these states at minimal cost, allowing them to shape the project to fit their specific needs.
The Illinois Sheriffs’ Association, a nonprofit organization that represents the state’s sheriffs through training and legislation, lobbied for money to fight methamphetamine addiction by focusing on prevention efforts. After receiving a one-time grant of $177,000, the ISA began to look for models it could use. Following a search, the ISA discovered the Montana Meth Project, and decided to use their advertisements.
“We looked at everything we could find that was available, and we came onto the Montana Meth Project,” says Bob Howlett of ISA. “The sheriffs liked them because they were a little more aggressive and in your face.”
Arizona, in contrast, already had established methamphetamine prevention programs, and was looking to supplement them with a new tactic for better addressing its meth problem. The answer came when then-chair of the Maricopa County, Arizona, Board of Supervisors Don Stapely was introduced to both Siebel and the Montana Meth Project at a national meeting.
“He became very interested because, given our push to address meth, this looked like a wonderful adjunct to what we were doing,” says Linda Mushkatel of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.
Arizona launched its own Meth Project on April 18 of this year, following an initial survey of the state’s 12- to 17-year-old population. In some ways, it has adapted the program to fit its own unique needs, including the creation of Spanish-language radio and television ads to address the state’s large Hispanic population.
“We are working so collaboratively with the folks in Montana and with the Meth Project,” says Mushkatel, “that we really see ourselves as partners with them in all this. And they understand that there are some things that we want to keep consistent, and then there is a lot of room at the community level to tailor it to meet each state’s needs. And I think that is a very wise approach.”
All of the non-Montana programs are financing themselves through private donations and government grants—not through money from the Siebel Foundation—demonstrating a deep commitment to the project at the local level.
Relying on this local commitment, Siebel intends to stop funding the Montana Meth Project within two years. “It is our plan in 2007 and 2008 that Montana will be financing it through both public and private money. The project is transitioning to a self-sustaining, financing model in the state.”
He argues that if the residents of Montana value the Meth Project and its results, they will be willing to pay for it.
Lives Restored in a Battle Philanthropy Can Win
Both Caitlin and Lee, the teenage methamphetamine addicts mentioned earlier, first tried the drug years before the Montana Meth Project was established, and experienced the painful consequences of their subsequent addictions.
Tom Siebel created the Montana Meth Project for other Caitlins and Lees, for the current generation of teenagers who must make split-second decisions about whether or not they should try meth.
In the end, both Caitlin and Lee are success stories, having overcome their addictions with the help of family, through counseling, and by sheer determination. Since recovering, both girls have also spent much of their time volunteering at the Montana Meth Project, hoping to deter other teenagers from trying the drug “even once.”
Lee is now a freshman at the University of Montana, majoring in social work. After a protracted, two-year battle with methamphetamine, she finally gave up the drug in 2006, and now speaks about her experiences to university classes and local high school students.
Caitlin finished her undergraduate degree in social work at the University of Montana in 2005, and is now pursuing her masters in the discipline. She has worked with middle school students in prevention programs, and also contributed her story to a radio advertisement for the Montana Meth Project.
“I think it’s fantastic,” Caitlin adds. “I love the project. I think it’s well done, and it’s really raising awareness across the entire state. If the project had been around when I had been using, I would have had a better perspective.”
The battle against methamphetamine addiction is certainly possible to win, as these encouraging results from Montana indicate.
Laura Hill is a writer living in Washington, D.C.