Hawaii Meth Project: Year one

Beth-Ann Kozlovich

HONOLULU—The fear is multiplying and that’s just what the Hawaii Meth Project wanted. Earlier this week, the organization released a new batch of highly graphic anti-meth commercials with the now familiar tagline, “Not Even Once.” The new wave of spots, like the ones begun a year ago, will be on TV and radio, in print and online.

On Tuesday, the nonprofit also released the results of its 2010 Meth Use and Attitudes Survey. It compares the data collected just prior to the Project’s launch in 2009 with information gathered in March and April. Judging by those numbers, the spots have been increasing the negative perceptions of meth and those who use it among teens 12 to 17, young adults 18 to 24, and parents.

Designed by New York’s GFK Roper Public Affairs and Media with the same methodology as the benchmark survey, the 2010 edition shows 54 percent of Hawaii teens and 67 percent of young adults now see “great risk” in experimenting with meth just once or twice—10 points better in each category over 2009 numbers. The meth disapproval rate among young adults according to the survey is now 87 percent, up 6 points from the benchmark survey.

“We’re encouraged by the 2010 survey and we’re hoping to see big changes to attitude, which will drive us in years 2 and 3 and will correlate with changes in behavior,” says Cindy Adams, the Hawaii Meth Project’s Executive Director.

Adams isn’t fazed that over 50 percent of the approximate 400 parents in the study thought meth was easier to get than reported by either the teens or young adults. “There’s always a little bit of a disconnect between what a parent believes or perceives and what a child believes or perceives.” She says another example of the disconnect is that many more parents think they have had a conversation with their teens about meth in the last 12 months and many more kids don’t remember their parents having that conversation with them.

Survey participants were randomly selected and sampled. Middle and high school students were pooled across the state then weighted for counties with more students of the appropriate age. According to Adams, the organization then contacted the schools to get permission to give the 7-8 page survey, which focused on meth use, perceived risk, ranking negative outcomes, the ads, and beliefs about meth compared to other drugs, including alcohol and tobacco. A third party proctored the survey.

To date, Adams totals the cost of the project at between 3 and 4 million dollars; all are from private donors. The majority of the money pays for the media campaign and community outreach. Compared to the estimated annual socioeconomic state cost of $500 million, she says the project’s price is a small prevention investment for everyone as meth use cuts through all levels of society.

Carolyn Denny learned that lesson: “We’re a middle income family. We thought this happens to people less fortunate. Seven years ago, we never heard of meth, it wasn’t in our vocabulary.” Then Denny and her husband discovered their son was meth-addicted. Denny now volunteers as a Hawaii Meth Project presenter.

“To anyone who would listen to me for the last seven years, I’ve said meth is Hawaii’s major problem,” says Family Court Judge Michael Broderick. “It cuts across every calendar in Family Court. I have not had one day in seven years that I haven’t seen a problem with meth. And many of the people who appear before me are in absolute denial.”

Meth is often called the walkaway drug. “Addicts will walk away from food, school, a job, a spouse, and, finally, kids. Within a fairly short period of time addicts’ lives change for the negative,” Broderick says, adding the high meth provides at the very beginning of use is incomparable to alcohol or marijuana. “You have to remember that many who are in Family Court are in great human suffering with issues of homelessness, domestic abuse, and mental health. The contrast between their lives and the way they first feel on meth is unbelievable.”

Despite good intentions and positive results from the latest Hawaii Meth Project, there is lingering controversy over the Montana Meth Project, the pilot meth program on which Hawaii and 6 other states are modeled.

In an April 2008 paper, University of Western Australia researcher David Erceg-Hurn highly criticized the Montana Project. Citing problems with constancy of methodology, lack of peer review, and manipulated data, he noted incongruities in the released results of the first two years, ‘05 and ‘06, with ‘07 and ’08. Yet several states, including Hawaii, later used Montana Meth Project statistics dating from 2005 to justify starting their own programs. Although Erceg-Hurn’s critique was published the year prior to the launch of the Hawaii Meth Project, Adams says his findings had no impact on the creation of Hawaii’s surveys.

The ads have also come under scrutiny. Dr. Bill Haning, Director of Addiction Psychiatry at the University of Hawaii’s medical school believes the ads do scare people and isn’t sure that’s a bad thing. “This isn’t a case of Reefer Madness. What concerns me is whether the shock factor has a therapeutic effect or lasting influence on decision making.”

Haning may have the chance to find out. Despite his variant point of view—he has said Erceg-Hurn’s analysis was probably accurate and fair; Haning is now the principal investigator of the next Hawaii follow-up study. He also thinks the message of the ads needs a strategy to help polish refusal skills and address those already in trouble with meth. Adams and Denny say they already get calls from kids who see the ads and want help.

Most parents dread the time when teens will listen to each other far more than to their parents. That understanding might argue for greater peer prevention policies and practices that look more holistically at building self worth and esteem. However, Adams cautions “peer outreach shouldn’t be to the exclusion of other outreaches or audiences. It’s all of it. We’ve taken a consumer marketing approach but instead of selling something to teens we’re trying to unsell meth because we know that’s how this target market tends to make decisions.”

In the end, it’s the images most remember. Current technology allows another “what if” meth scenario to be graphically represented. A functional MRI scan of a meth user shows the frontal center of the brain is dark and in a normal brain it’s all lit up, says Haning. Knowing this also helps mitigate expectations during the average yearlong withdrawal and recovery from meth use. “When the brain lights up again, it’s just about the same time the person says he’s feeling normal.”

The best chance to feel normal is to never have to go through withdrawal by never starting to use meth in the first place. Simple and trite as that may sound, Adams, Broderick, and Denny say that also means starting potentially uncomfortable conversations with kids early and continuing the dialog.

A good opener for Broderick is acknowledging to a child that she may want to experiment with many things, but with meth, “it’s an experiment that you might never recover from. … There other things you can recover from. Not this drug.”

Denny is a little more descriptive: “Imagine a life where you’ve lost everything you could possibly lose, except your life, and then getting to the point where you’re ready to give that up because you can’t see or feel any kind of pleasure even in the things that used to bring you joy. Can you imagine a life where you are hopeless day-in and day-out until you want to take your life? That’s what this drug will do for you.”

See it in the latest crop of anti-meth ads.

The full interview with Cindy Adams, Executive Director of the Hawaii Meth Project, Family Court Judge Michael Broderick, and Meth Project volunteer Carolyn Denny is on the Town Square archive at www.hawaiipublicradio.org. The Hawaii Meth Project 2010 survey on use and attitudes is located at http://www.hawaiimethproject.org/About_Us/publications.php.