Reason for Hope in Montana's Meth Crisis

Montana Meth Project's PSAs contribute to huge drop in teen drug use.


Oct. 1, 2007 &#151; -- "Never make coffee in a cheap hotel room," the cop tells me. "Because at one time, someone probably used the pot to cook meth."

That one statement sums up the prevalence of a modern American scourge, but until I talked to addicts, I didn't fully understand the problem of meth addiction.

Bill Weir's piece on the Montana Meth Project marks the launch of our series "Key to Success" -- to show creative solutions to entrenched problems in this country. Have a solution to share? Post suggestions in the comment field on the right.

Sure, I've been to my share of parties, talked to more than a few "pharmaceutical majors" and read plenty of Bukowski and Burroughs, but I've never heard people describe a drug with such simultaneous reverence and revulsion as the meth-heads in Montana, where a PSA campaign has helped reverse the prevalance of this drug. (To watch the videos, click here.)

"You feel like God," one young woman told me about her experience with the drug. Another described feeling "10 feet tall and bulletproof." She cracked a guilty smile when she spoke, and I was able to count her six remaining teeth.

Methamphetamine was invented in Japan in the late 1800s, and years later, the Nazis mixed it with chocolate to keep their pilots focused in battle. A graph charting American meth use looks like a hockey stick; a low plateau through the '60s and '70s that cranks skyward.

By the '90s, it was no longer a fringe weight loss aid or trucker's buddy. It became a smokeable, snortable, shootable party drug that has devastated rural America.

Why here? For years, it was cheap — and everywhere. Unlike cocaine, heroin or marijuana, meth is not grown but mixed; a witches brew of cold medicine, antifreeze, drain cleaner and other store-bought or farm-pilfered chemicals.

One needs only time to cook it, and space to mask the fumes. The American West has plenty of space, along with plenty of small-town kids eager to experiment on a slow Saturday night.

But calling meth addictive is like calling water wet. As it floods the brain with dopamine and serotonin, it also explodes the vesicles that receive these pleasure-producing hormones in the future.

Soon, the only way for a user to experience joy is with more meth. "If someone tells you they're a recreational user, they're full of crap," a veteran drug cop told me with a wry laugh. What begins as recreation often ends in soul-crushing depression and physical decay.

Meth mouth — caused by an addict's poor hygiene and grinding teeth — is a tell-tale clue, along with Parkinson's-type shaking and self-inflicted scabs and scrapes.

In Montana, where there are more mountains than malls, hikers would find empty Sudafed boxes, piles of batteries and the smell of ammonia in the air.

New laws made those ingredients harder to come by, so makeshift labs are scarcer than ever, and the once-cheap drug is now as expensive as cocaine.

A trip to the Great Falls jail provided a vivid display of this human horror show.

The sheriff estimates that 80 percent of the people crammed inside are there because of meth. Fifty percent of the kids in foster care were taken from meth-using parents, and it costs the state $100 million per year.

When the problem became obvious, legislators scrambled to cut off the supply for those who mixed the drug, putting Sudafed behind the counter and cracking down on the sale of other ingredients.

This helped dry up the mom-and-pop labs, but dealers simply shifted their supply chain to Mexico. Prices went up, but addicts simply stole more to get what they needed.

When meth users began to cost Montana $100 million a year, a part-time rancher, Tom Seibel, came up with an idea: If you can't stop the supply, dry up the demand.

This concerned citizen and billionaire philanthropist, made a fortune designing software and thinking about the customer-product relationship, and applied that to this situation.

Meth is a product, Seibel believed, and if no one could stop the supply, then everyone should work on the demand. Two years ago, he set out to market the horrors of this product to the customer.

He hired an ad team to conduct focus groups with hundreds of kids, and once they settled on the most effective message, Hollywood director Darren Aronofsky came in to shoot a series of gritty public service announcements that depicted the effects of this drug for the Montana Meth Project.

Since most PSAs are doomed for the wee hours, Seibel spent millions of dollars to saturate prime-time television with a campaign that is creepy enough to scare the hell out of every 12-year-old in the state.

In one commercial, a girl describes her devotion to her boyfriend as he sells her body for meth. In another, a mother catches her jonesing son rifling through her purse — when she challenges him, he beats her into a pathetic pile on the kitchen floor.

The spots are a long way from the government's fried egg "this is your brain on drugs" ad campaign of yore, which is probably why the new ads work so well.

In just two years, teen meth use in Montana has been cut by nearly half, while abuse in neighboring states is on the rise. Positive workplace drug tests are down by 70 percent, and 96 percent of kids polled say they have discussed meth with a parent.

The project has been such a smashing success, 10 other states are poised to copy the campaign, and federal money will help produce new ads.

I rode along on a drug bust in Great Falls, raiding a house filled with unspeakable squalor, where two meth-addled teens live with their mother and a caged iguana.

Whether or not they have seen the ads makes no difference, because they are not the target demographic. "The chances of saving these people are slim," the officer told me. "Bu there's got to be a way to stop this, and that's where the Meth Project comes in. Let's stop a generation."

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