Feature: Drug Policy Reform Group to Partner with State of New Mexico in Federally-Funded Meth Prevention Education Program

In a first for drug reform organizations, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) New Mexico office has been designated to create a statewide methamphetamine education and prevention program directed at high school students, thanks to a $500,000 grant obtained by US Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) as part of a Justice Department appropriations bill. The grant is the result of years of close collaboration between DPA and New Mexico state and local officials dating back to the administration of former Gov. Gary Johnson (R), a prominent voice for drug law reform.

Building on ties with state government developed during the Johnson years, DPA New Mexico, currently headed by Reena Szczepanski, a former state health department employee, was named co-chair of the state's methamphetamine task force in 2005, along with then state drug czar Herman Silva. (Silva left office this week; his replacement has not yet been named.) The task force has worked for the past two years at developing comprehensive strategies for addressing the impact of methamphetamine on local communities. It was that work that caught the attention of Sen. Bingaman and resulted this week in the announcement of the grant.

"Meth is not only the No. 1 crime problem in many communities throughout our state, it is also devastating families and ruining lives," Bingaman said in a statement announcing the grant. "The funding I was able to secure will be used in an aggressive anti-meth marketing campaign aimed at preventing young people from ever using this terrible drug. I know it will be put to good use."

The state Health department is happy to get additional funding. "The more money we have to address the problem of methamphetamine in our state and communities, the better," Health Department spokeswoman Kay Bird told Drug War Chronicle.

DPA will use the grant to craft a meth prevention campaign designed by and for youth, which will be broadcast on television and radio stations throughout New Mexico. "We know from experience that young people ignore overly simplistic messages about the risks of drug use," said Szczepanski. "The strength of this campaign will be its focus on credible, science-based information rather than ineffective scare tactics."

Now, it's time for the DPA New Mexico office to get down to business. "We will be hiring a project coordinator, but we want to ensure that most of the resources are actually going for educational activities within the state," Szczepanski said. "We are going to focus our resources on social marketing and the education of people working with youth. Rather than a one-shot deal, we want to build awareness among youth by engaging them in a campaign that is relevant to them and designed by them. And we are going to focus on capacity. We don't want to create a program that will disappear in two years when the money runs out. That's why we will hold a statewide conference for educators and other people working with youth and concerned about meth -- so they can take what they've learned and plug it back into their schools and local communities." In addition to the statewide conference, DPA New Mexico will host a serious of regional training sessions designed to bring the meth prevention message where it is most needed.

"This is the first time DPA has ever received any federal funds, or any state money, for that matter," said DPA executive director Ethan Nadelmann in New York. "We had never applied for any funds; we always assumed we would be effectively blacklisted, and also, we're not a service provision organization. But then, back in 2005, Sen. Bingaman wanted to put DPA New Mexico in for an earmark. The reason was largely because Reena was co-chairing Gov. Richardson's task force on meth abuse. She came out of the state health department, and has been really spectacular," Nadelmann told the Chronicle.

The offer of federal funding prompted considerable discussion within DPA, said Nadelmann. "When Bingaman wanted to put us in for an earmark, we had to ask ourselves if we really felt comfortable with that, and last year, we had a conference call with virtually the entire board to decide whether or not we should accept this money. We did substantial research on this, we talked to folks at the Harm Reduction Coalition about how they handle taking federal funds. We looked at the Drug Free Workplace Act and concluded it had no prohibition on hiring active drug users," he explained.

"We had to ask ourselves whether we would somehow be corrupted by taking federal money," Nadelmann continued, "and the answer was no. Our sense was that because our whole mission and vision is so fundamentally about changing the government's drug policies, and also because this money is a one-shot deal that it was unlikely to have that effect in any case. And there are good reasons to take the money, not just because we can do good things with it, but also because we're taxpayers. Billions go to the drug war every year, why not take some money to do good things instead? Finally, getting a federal grant also legitimizes us in some people's eyes. After serious discussions, our staff was overwhelmingly in favor of this, and in the final analysis, the board was, too."

"This is a real opportunity to take what we've done with Safety First and Beyond Zero Tolerance and do it in a very big way," said Nadelmann, referring to the alternative drug education programs pioneered by DPA's Marsha Rosenbaum. "It is also an opportunity to provide an alternative to criminal justice approaches and scare campaign approaches like the one in Montana."

Ironically, despite widespread public concern about methamphetamine, the popular stimulant is not the most widely used hard drug among New Mexico teens -- and, according to state Health Department surveys, its use is already declining. When measuring how many teens had used which drug in the past month, the surveys found that 4.6% of New Mexico students admitted using meth in 2005, down from 7.3% in 2003. Both figures are lower than those reported for cocaine, with 8.9% of students admitting use of cocaine in the past month in 2003 and 7.9% in 2005.

Even though teen meth use appears to be declining and even though it is not the most frequently cited hard drug among New Mexico youth, as the demon drug du jour, methamphetamine is the drug that can shake loose dollars from the federal anti-drug bureaucracies, and it is a real problem in the Land of Enchantment, said Szczepanski.

"If you look at the numbers, meth is not the number one drug of choice in New Mexico, but there is a lot of political interest in it," Szczepanski conceded. "Still, we've traveled around the state and worked with various local coalitions, and these communities are grappling with these issues like they've never done before. You cannot deny that meth is having an incredible impact."

And concern over meth has now catapulted the DPA into a whole new realm -- taking its enlightened drug education and prevention messages directly to the people who will be working at the state, community, and school level.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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