In 2005, Montanans were leaving home – not because they were fleeing the state for better prospects; they were going to prison. The Treasure State had the fastest-growing prison population in the United States, fueled largely by a methamphetamine epidemic. Half of its male inmates and two-thirds of its female inmates were incarcerated for meth-related crimes.
Today all that's changed. Instead of struggling with America's fifth-worst meth problem, the state now ranks 39th. Teen use has declined 45 percent; adult use is down 70 percent.
Montana's experience is a dramatic example of success in America's war on drugs, especially against meth. In a report confirming the drop, 8.4 million workplace drug tests across the United States showed a 22 percent decline in meth use from 2006 to 2007 and a 19 percent drop in cocaine use over the same period. Overall, according to the report by Quest Diagnostics earlier this month, 3.8 percent of the tests indicated an illicit drug – the lowest level since the Madison, N.J., company began publishing results in 1988.
Two keys to the change in the US are better enforcement strategies and prevention education, experts say. But they caution that the improvements may not last if efforts flag.
"The bottom line is that the war on drugs continues," says David Crane, a professor at Syracuse University College of Law in New York. But "it's like grabbing onto water. Every time we grab onto it, it goes right through our fingers or diverts and goes somewhere else."
For example, the same Quest report that showed a nationwide decline in meth and cocaine use also found a 5 percent rise in amphetamine use, which could indicate that some users are switching to milder drugs.
One factor behind the drop in meth use is better antidrug advertising, experts say.
"It becomes this idea of unselling a product," says Steve Pasierb, president and CEO of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, the nonprofit group in New York that produced the famous "This is your brain on drugs" public-service announcements. "Instead of driving up perception of benefit, we drive perception of risk. Instead of driving up social acceptance, we drive social disapproval. And what you find is you literally move consumers away from your product."
That's the approach of the Meth Project, a nonprofit Montana group that blanketed television stations, newspapers, billboards, and Internet sites with drug-prevention ads starting in 2005.
"The intention is to treat meth like a consumer product," says Nitsa Zuppas, executive director of the Siebel Foundation, which funds the Meth Project. "If you educate consumers about the attributes of the product then they'll make a more well-informed decision."
One of its TV spots, for example, showed a teenager selling his girlfriend into prostitution for meth money. The project is now active in six states.
The other crucial factor behind the decline of meth use is a shift in federal drug-enforcement strategy, experts say. Efforts now focus less on stopping individual criminals and more on interrupting the business of trafficking drugs.
In the past, "the typical way this was understood was as a criminal case: ... find somebody who was a criminal, collect the evidence that they are indeed guilty of trafficking and related charges, try to find other people who are involved with them," says John Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Now, enforcement efforts are more systematic, placing greater focus on disrupting supply lines, he adds. States and the federal government tightened access to chemicals used to make meth by, among other things, limiting over-the-counter purchases of certain medicines.
The supply squeeze has created a meth shortage, almost doubling its street price over the course of last year.
Still, some worry that these successes may be short-lived. President Bush's proposed 2009 budget calls for big cuts in drug-treatment and prevention programs, says Arthur Dean, chairman and CEO of Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, based in Alexandria, Va.