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Awareness campaign plans to suppliment anti-drug efforts

WASHINGTON – Chances are we won’t see a poster depicting the stillborn baby with six illicit drugs in its system, as described by Carole Lankford of the Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana.

But posters of young people before and after methamphetamine addiction have proved effective against the meth scourge elsewhere, and Lankford said the posters are making a difference in Indian country too.

National Congress of American Indians Executive Director Jacqueline Johnson seconded Lankford’s assessment. She reported asking a member of her own extended family in Alaska what had turned her against meth addiction and gotten her into treatment. The response was: “Look at those posters.” Seeing the before-and-after contrast seems to speak to people about the changes they are seeing in their own bodies as meth works on them, Johnson said.

So on leaving the Nov. 30 unveiling of a $300,000 anti-meth awareness campaign for print and radio media in Indian country, one had to suspect that Indian-specific before-and-after posters will prove to be one way of communicating the anti-meth message. But the press conference also left the impression of another possibility, namely that the before-and-after contrast may be found to concede too much. Steve Pasierb, president and CEO of Partnership for a Drug-Free America, said that in view of the pervasive meth problem already present in Indian country, another approach worth considering is to target demand for the drug by sending the message – Don’t try it. Not once; not ever.

Pasierb said the campaign will take place in three phases: research and learning, crafting messages, and rolling them out. Only at the rollout phase will decisions be made about the conveyance of crafted messages against meth use. Indian country is especially indispensable to the research and learning phase, Pasierb said. His organization’s priority is research, and Native communities must inform the research that goes into crafting anti-meth messages that “resonate with real parents, raising real families in real communities.” Meth use is “uniquely a local issue,” he added, in reference to the spread of low-cost meth through low-income rural regions and the close watch communities must keep on meth labs, meth houses, meth use and bulk sales of over-the-counter products (such as cold and sinus medications) that contain meth ingredients.

The Partnership for a Drug-Free America will consult with a working group of the NCAI National Indian Country Meth Initiative Tribal Leader Task Force, as well as holding focus groups with youth and adults.

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Interior Department Secretary Dirk Kempthorne also called on Indian country for all possible participation in the research process, saying “we need to have people from Indian country help us with the thoughts ... and sensitivities” that will win over Indian communities. He particularly encouraged sounding out young people, as Johnson had.

Lankford, vice chairman of the Salish and Kootenai, emphasized that elders too can take a place in the front line against meth. “It’s not traditional, it’s not cultural, and it will not be tolerated.” That message tends to come across more forcefully when young meth offenders are brought before a council of elders, she said. “It’s a strong message when our elders speak.”

The awareness campaign is a collaboration between the NCAI, Partnership for a Drug-Free America, Interior and the BIA, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Interior has contributed $100,000 to the effort, $50,000 from the Office of the Assistant Secretary and $50,000 from the BIA; the Office of National Drug Control Policy has provided $150,000; and HHS has donated $50,000 as part of its larger, $1 million Indian Country Methamphetamine Initiative. Kempthorne said the modest front-end investment will leverage millions of dollars’ worth of exposure over months and years, as media outlets disseminate campaign materials free of charge as public service announcements. As a past governor of Idaho, Kempthorne said he made addressing the methamphetamine problem a top priority and implied it has similar standing at Interior. “I am absolutely dedicated to Indian country,” he said.

He said a communications campaign has been missing from other efforts against meth in Indian country. They include public health measures and BIA law enforcement initiatives that have broken up four meth rings that were operating in Indian country, including one that revealed a multi-reservation “business plan.”

According to Interior materials made available Nov. 30, “Indian Country’s isolated reservation and rural communities are viewed by foreign drug cartels as numerous enterprise zones with limited law enforcement and resident populations in need of income-producing opportunities.” Federal studies have found American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian communities to have the highest national rates of meth use; the low-cost, heavy intensity, high-collateral-damage nature of meth has won it a reputation as “poor man’s cocaine.” Meth’s impact reaches “every social and economic aspect of Indian communities. It has been closely linked to child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, suicide, reduced employability, degraded physical health, and reduced academic achievement. As a result, meth is overwhelming Indian social, economic, education and health programs.”

But several important corners have been turned. Vigorous law enforcement has hampered the meth cartels of Mexico and southern California; local vigilance has reduced the number of smaller meth labs on the rural landscape; and in Indian country, Lankford said, people have broken the silence about meth.