David Lias

After the rather disastrous roll-out of the “Meth. We’re On It” initiative last week, Gov. Kristi Noem takes solace in the fact that the poorly-worded $1.4 million effort, developed by a Minnesota firm, has at least gotten people’s attention.

“In today’s age, traditional messages don’t cut through the noise. We knew we needed to make a bold statement to make people stop and think… and it is working,” she writes in her Nov. 22 column.

She adds: “This requires action from each of us. We all have a responsibility to step up and be part of the solution.

This means paying attention when your friend starts experimenting with drugs. This means offering help when your loved one is struggling with addiction. This means building channels of communications with your kids by listening, asking questions, reminding them of their strengths, and showing an interest in their lives.

We’re taking action, too. This year, I designated dollars toward starting conversations and increasing awareness on our meth epidemic. Of even greater importance, though, is the $730,000 we set aside to go toward school-based meth prevention programming and the more than $1 million in funding to support treatment services. Prevention and treatment efforts need to work together to eliminate this epidemic.”

That meth is a growing problem not just in South Dakota but across the nation is a fact that can’t be denied.

Finding an effective solution to that growing problem, however, is where the really, really hard work begins, and so far, no one has really defined how South Dakota plans to tackle that goal.

Talking about meth more than we presently are among our children at school certainly is admirable. So is setting aside an additional $1 million to support treatment services.

But if you search through South Dakota’s new onmeth.com website in hopes of finding a new, big, bold initiative that’s been launched to help people struggling with meth addiction, you may be disappointed.

Unless it’s hidden somewhere in the website, onmeth.com doesn’t provide much of anything new. There’s a listing of existing places where one can seek treatment -- places that I’m assuming will be getting a portion of the $1 million-plus of funding the governor mentions in her column.

There’s talk of how we can get involved in combating meth that reads like a term paper submitted by a middle schooler: In your community you can familiarize yourself with the warning signs of meth and start a fundraiser for a treatment organization, among other things.

In your school, you can organize a discussion session or pledge with your classmates to show your commitment (I’m not sure what that entails, exactly).

At home, we can all familiarize ourselves with the warning signs of meth and practice refusal skills with our kids. Among other things that I haven’t mentioned.

In other words, the “Meth. We’re On It" campaign demonstrates that no, we’re really not if you’re using the “on it” play on words to mean South Dakota has rolled out a new, substantive program.

We need to understand the problem, I mean really understand it beyond knowing that it’s growing, to begin to battle it. And battling meth addiction may be one of the toughest challenges society faces.

As the PBS program “Frontline” reports, methamphetamine causes the body to release large amounts of dopamine, a neurotransmitter, resulting in a prolonged sense of pleasure or euphoria for the user. Over time, this causes severe side effects and with repeated use, meth depletes the brain's stores of dopamine and actually destroys the wiring of the dopamine receptors.

This is a major reason why users become so addicted to the drug; without it they are no longer able to experience pleasure (a condition known as anhedonia), and they usually slip into a deep depression.

The “Frontline” report notes that recovery is possible, but may take years of medication and behavior therapy. Because methamphetamine changes the brain's wiring by destroying its dopamine receptors, users need almost a year to allow those receptors to regrow.

Until then, addicts cannot experience pleasure without the drug, and most slip into a deep depression that may cause them to relapse. This depression can be treated with psychopharmacology, and now many treatment programs include prescriptions for antidepressants.

In addition, meth addicts must relearn certain behaviors. Because meth has trained them to associate all pleasure with the drug, they need to learn to modify their thinking and expectations. Counseling helps them cope with their cravings, examine the personal issues that lead to the abuse, and help them avoid situations that may cause a relapse.

Many treatment experts insist that out-patient treatment is essential to recovery, with some programs starting to work with addicts even while they are still using the drug. In addition, some experts believe that because the disease is so debilitating and the recovery process so protracted, meth addicts also need help and reinforcement from the criminal justice system.

Many newly-formed drug courts keep track of users in recovery and install penalties for not participating in treatment programs.

Naturally, we’d like to see any new initiative in South Dakota succeed, no matter how silly its catch phrase sounds. There’s too much at stake.

Meth devastates individuals and their families. Children of users are at risk of endangerment, abuse and neglect, often left to fend for themselves.

Communities suffer, too. Meth means increased crime. Property crimes, car theft and identification theft soar because addicts need money for their habit. Local jails have to house newly-arrested meth users and health care facilities must treat patients who overdose or are injured in lab explosions. Altogether, meth affects the whole range of a community's social and health services.

In a couple months, the South Dakota Legislature will begin its 2020 session and we’re hoping to hear more from the governor. We hope she has something of substance awaiting us. More state resources -- likely a great deal more that come with a high price tag -- will be needed to effectively battle South Dakota’s meth crisis.

As long as we’re tossing slogans around this week, I can think of another: “Talk is cheap.” So far, we’ve heard a lot of talk. We haven’t heard much communicated about truly meaningful solutions to the meth crisis.

We’ll be waiting, Gov. Noem.

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