Last best place fights meth

CASCADE, Mont.

August in Washington can be lonely as Congress and those who support and live off it flee the city to cool off, relax and prepare for the frenzy of activity they will confront on their return.

CASCADE, Mont.

August in Washington can be lonely as Congress and those who support and live off it flee the city to cool off, relax and prepare for the frenzy of activity they will confront on their return.

I get out of town as soon as I can, escaping to the mountains and rivers of Montana, where cell phones work only sporadically and it actually takes an effort to keep up with what’s going on elsewhere.

It turns out, however, that there are problems in paradise as well as in Washington. Montana may be the last best place, as many out here claim, but it is beset with many of the problems faced by those of us who live most of our lives in far worse places.

The drug problems that most of us consider largely urban phenomena, for example, have hit rural America with a vengeance in recent years. They have come in the form of methamphetamine — easily produced, widely available, extremely seductive and incredibly dangerous. It is being cooked up in labs that dot the rural countryside by men, women and kids crazy enough to want to make it and willing to risk the legal and physical consequences of doing so.

The meth epidemic snuck up on Washington because, unlike previous waves of “new” drug addiction, it has come late to the cities and thus to the attention of policymakers who tend to ignore what goes on in “flyover” country. This summer, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales finally recognized that meth is “the most dangerous drug in America,” but many rural lawmakers familiar with what’s happening back home still don’t think Washington gets it.

Montana is back home to Sen. Conrad Burns (R), who took time during the recess to meet with officials, businessmen and volunteers in Montana putting together a unique program to deal with the meth epidemic in their state.

Led by Montana’s Republican former first lady, Theresa Racicot, and Democratic current attorney general, Mike McGrath, among others, and with seed money from Tom Siebel, a high-tech executive who wants to help make this “last best place” a little better, the Montana Meth Project represents a serious attempt to deal with a devastating problem by real people more interested in solving it than passing the buck.

They realize there is much the feds can do to help; despite the proliferation of domestic meth labs, some 85 percent of the meth sold in the United States is smuggled in over a porous southern border the government has thus far proved unable or unwilling to secure. But they know also that the real problem is that young people are consciously deciding to try the drug without fully realizing just how quickly it can destroy their lives.

They know they can’t eradicate meth, but polls of the state’s teenagers convince them that there would be far fewer addicts if young people truly understood what they might be getting themselves into when they decide to try the stuff.

And they are trying it. One in six Montana teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17 has close friends who are meth users, and nearly half of these kids say can get meth whenever they want it.

Approaching the state’s teenagers as an intelligent bunch of consumers, the Montana Meth Project has launched a broadcast, print and Internet campaign designed to provide them the credible information they need to make an informed decision when next offered the stuff.

The project organizers aren’t targeting the addict and habitual user they consider lost to law enforcement and the social services but the potential user, the consumer that drug dealers target, in the hope that they can reduce the number of teens willing to try a product that could hook and kill them if they use it even once.

Anti-drug activists, state and federal policymakers and parents are going to want to keep an eye on what they’re trying to do, just in case it works (their plans and activities can be followed via the Internet at www.notevenonce.com).

If they succeed, they will have proved that people working together without regard to partisan and ideological concerns can save lives, create a model that could work in other states and, in the process, help ensure that Montana will remain the last best place that brings so many of us here each summer.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (www.carmengrouplobbying.com).