South Dakota is not only losing the war on drugs, it’s setting a standard for ineptitude.
After years of being held up as an example of flawed enforcement policy and overzealous sentencing of non-violent narcotics offenders, we’ve entered a fresh wave of national scrutiny, this time in the form of laughter.
Gov. Kristi Noem’s anti-meth advertising campaign – featuring the tagline “Meth. We’re On It.” – managed to draw enough mockery to make South Dakota a trending topic on Twitter, with national media and neighboring states seizing on a hackneyed attempt at double meaning to do the unthinkable: make a joke out of crippling drug addiction.
Enough about the punchlines, though. Let’s talk about missed opportunities. And wasted resources.
This was the rollout of a $1.4 million ad campaign contracted by the state’s Department of Social Services to a Minneapolis marketing firm, which will use various forms of media to “educate every person across the state of South Dakota” on meth addiction, resources available and strategies to engage communities in recovery.
“Meth. We’re on it.” South Dakota ad campaign draws national attention Wochit
For that amount of money and the importance of the subject matter, there should be scrutiny upon those who signed off on the premise. Someone listened to a boardroom pitch that most Americans found harebrained and decided to invest state funds to embrace the “I’m On Meth” mantra.
Since Noem is the boss, she has some explaining to do.
We all understand the advertising axiom of “just get them talking about you,” which the governor tried to use as cover for the blunder. That approach makes perfect sense for commercial branding, but this was not about selling breakfast cereal.
This is about raising awareness and fostering grassroots education about a highly addictive drug that accounted for more than 3,600 statewide arrests in 2018 and has reached crisis mode on Native American reservations. The trend is seeping into our schools, with South Dakota reporting a 150 percent higher rate of young meth users than the rest of the country.
There is a difference between “getting people’s attention” for a two-day news cycle and those same people being suitably inspired to take meaningful steps to understand and address the issue.
Research into the “Just Say No” PSAs and other anti-drug campaigns in the 1980s and 90s show little positive effect on their core audience – namely young people who have not yet become habitual users. Though they drew attention with images such as an egg in a frying pan and the message, “This is your brain on drugs,” the movement missed the mark.
“Despite billions of dollars spent,” former presidential drug policy advisor Keith Humphreys told NPR in 2017, “the general conclusion is that these ads either had no effect or in some cases maybe even a perverse effect.”
Perhaps the money could be better spent on a wide network of support systems to help parents and educators understand warning signs and behavioral triggers before things start to spiral. Hardcore drug use is often a symptom of emotional vulnerabilities and social circumstances that trained counselors can not only spot but also work with others to counteract.
If South Dakota’s ad campaign is merely a way to draw people to a website to find such resources, it could have been done with a much smaller price tag and considerably less embarrassment.
It’s also a mixed message for a state that ranks first nationally in per capita narcotics arrests, the byproduct of a system in which stiff drug laws swell jails and prisons with low-level offenders. South Dakota is the only state that treats ingestion of a controlled substance as a felony rather than a misdemeanor, which helps fuel the incarceration rate rather than focusing on addiction counseling and continuing treatment.
A legislative committee that studied the issue over the summer recommended more funding for probation, parole and treatment services, but no change to South Dakota’s ingestion law.
More on meth: How South Dakota fights meth with imprisonment
So a state facing an epidemic of meth and opioid abuse, coupled with laws that lock up common users and encourage recidivism, has decided that minor tweaks to the status quo and a too-clever ad campaign is the way to find daylight amid the darkness.
Do we need to keep hammering this issue until leadership emerges and common sense prevails?
We’re on it.
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