When I read the tragic news about the death of Graham Macker, one of the subjects of the HBO documentary Montana Meth, I had an uneasy feeling that the self-promotion that has characterized the Montana Meth Project would soon follow. Earlier in the month, the Meth Project was touted in a MTN News story that said the project moved most of its advertising to social media. A few months earlier, the Meth Project tried to increase its relevance by promising to combat prescription drug abuse, an initiative that seems to be little more than public relations.
The truth is that the Montana Meth Project is a dying initiative that never had much more impact on Montana than getting effusive praise from a media that rather uncritically looked at the program.
Despite the glowing press, Montana’s young people today have almost exactly the same likelihood of using meth today as they did in 2005. Claims about the Montana Meth Project’s success have been debunked before, here and in academic circles.
The truth is, it seems the Montana Meth Project has fallen on hard times. As recently as 2010, the organization reported receiving $1.3 million dollars in contributions in grants, a number reduced to $355,000 in 2012. Despite this drastic decrease in contributions and expenditures, the Meth Project still reported spending $147,000 on salaries and other benefits, primarily in the form of salary for an executive director making over $100,000/year.
That the MMP is still paying a single executive director such a generous salary despite declining program expenditures and revenue is hardly surprising, given the organization’s past compensation practices, including a year in which the organization generously paid two executive directors just under $100,000 each.
A brief look at the Meth Project’s web site tells the story of an organization in decline. Once dominating the news in Montana, it reports only five news stories on its web site in the past year.
The Montana Meth Project simply isn’t an effective or affordable program.
There is a deeper issue with the way that MMP chose to characterize meth addiction as well. In his book High Price, Columbia University psychology professor Carl Hart tackles another of the danger of the meth hysteria: it has been used to demonize “marginal” members of society. April Short, in Salon in a piece about Hart’s work, writes:
The report notes for example that in 1999, “then Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating characterized methamphetamine in this way:
“‘It’s a white trash drug — methamphetamines largely are consumed by the lower socio-economic element of white people and I think we need to shame it. … Just like crack cocaine was a black trash drug and is a black trash drug.”
Hart notes that poor white people, and gay people, are two groups commonly stigmatized in American society. They’re also the two groups most commonly associate with meth use, so the fact that meth is vilified is no coincidence, he argues.
“Those are two groups that are despised in society, so anything they do that we can distinctly say is ‘what they do,’ is vilifying,” he said. “This just becomes another one of the tools to vilify the groups that we don’t like.”
Hart’s report also notes that, similar to the way crack was made out to be a different and much more dangerous drug than the powder cocaine commonly snorted from the tables and toilet seats of wealthy white people and rock stars, meth is made out to be severely worse than its sister amphetamines.
Thinking back on the “edgy” style seen in the Montana Meth Project ads, it’s pretty clear they relied on the strategies outlined by Hart: depicting meth users as on the margins of society, often living in poverty and despair.
No one can reasonably deny that addiction to meth or any drug is devastating to individuals, their families, and the communities in which they live. As a state, we should invest in effective education programs to reduce drug use and offer treatment for those who become addicted. But our concern for drug addiction, whether it’s methamphetamine or prescription painkillers, cannot justify an approach that demonizes segments of our population
When (as I suspect they will) the Montana Meth Project comes to the next session of the Legislature to ask for more money, legislators needs to ask themselves hard questions about a project that simply hasn’t made a difference in meth use here in Montana.
Fears about the drug (largely created by the Meth Project itself) can’t drive dollars to a program that not only doesn’t seem to make a difference, but does harm to social policy and public perception of vulnerable groups.
Drug abuse far too often ends in tragedy. That reality demands that public policy to control substance abuse be rooted in compassion and researched strategies, elements that never seemed to be top priorities driving the Montana Meth Project.