Measuring and Fighting Meth Use in Alaska and the U.S.

Measuring and Fighting Meth Use in Alaska and the U.S.

Marny Rivera and Jenny Baker

"Measuring and Fighting Meth Use in Alaska and the U.S." by Marny Rivera and Jenny Baker. Alaska Justice Forum 27(3): 2-3 (Fall 2010). A description of efforts nationally and in Alaska to combat the use of methamphetamines, with particular focuse on the work of the Alaska Meth Education (AME) Project, which collaborates with local governments - including the Municipality of Anchorage, Kenai Peninsula Borough, Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Fairbanks North Star Borough, and the City and Borough of Juneau - to educate youth and the general public about the dangers of meth use.

Meth use in the U.S. spiked in the 1990s and early 2000s. The reported use of meth started to decline about 2002 following prevention efforts around the country and the passage of national legislation in 2006 that regulated the sale of pseudoephedrine (sold under the brand name Sudafed). Recent indicators, however, reflect overall growth in meth use over the past year. At this point, it is difficult to determine if this upsurge in use is a trend or a one-year increase.

National, as well as state and local efforts, have been focused on decreasing methamphetamine (meth) use and its attendant devastating and costly consequences. In 2006 the United States Senate approved $99 million to help states fight meth use, which included funding for the statewide Alaska Meth Education (AME) Project. The AME Project, funded by both federal and state sources, works with local governments to keep Alaskans, especially youth, from ever trying meth, and focuses on creating awareness of the drug's dangers. In local communities throughout Alaska, collaborations like the Mat-Su Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition and the Effective Prevention & Intervention of Substance Abuse Committee of Anchorage United for Youth have galvanized prevention efforts targeting meth and other substance abuse.

Meth Use Indicators Nationwide

Data from the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reports on substance use among non-institutionalized Americans aged 12 years and older. The 2009 NSDUH shows that the number of Americans 12 years and older who reported past month use of meth increased 60 percent, from 314,000 current users in 2008 to 502,200 in 2009. This increase in current meth use is noteworthy because past month reports of meth use had declined from 2006 to 2008, and because among adults 26 years and older, the number of past month drug users did not change significantly from 2008 to 2009 for any drugs other than stimulants and meth. Similarly, the number of new users (those who tried the drug for the first time in the past year) 12 years and older increased from 95,000 new users in 2008 to 154,000 new users in 2009. (Forty-one percent of most past-year meth users reported that they were given the drug by a friend or relative.) The most current data available for Alaska is for the period 2002-2005 and show that 0.64 percent of Alaskans 12 years and older reported past year meth use, while 2.9 percent of 18 to 25-year-olds indicated they had used meth in the past year.

There are a few contributing factors thought to be behind increasing rates of meth use. The first is importation of large amounts of meth from Mexico. The second is smurfing, which refers to multiple people supplying clandestine meth labs with Sudafed purchased at different locations. The third factor is increased use of the shake and bake production method that allows users to manufacture meth in vehicles using fewer ingredients in smaller and easily transportable containers such as suitcases and backpacks. (The remnants are often discarded in local neighborhoods, as well as remote areas, creating environmental hazards.)

Youth Meth Use Data

Meth use by high school students both nationally and in Alaska showed declines in lifetime use (use of meth anytime during one's life) between 2007 and 2009 for most grade levels. According to the 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), a biennial nationwide survey, between 2007 and 2009 the number of high school students who reported lifetime use of meth declined overall from 4.6 percent in 2007 to 3.6 percent in 2009 in Alaska, and from 4.4 percent in 2007 to 4.1 percent in 2009 nationwide. In Alaska, reductions in reported lifetime meth use were noted among ninth, tenth, and eleventh grade high school students; however, lifetime use of meth increased from 3.2 percent in 2007 to 4.5 percent in 2009 among twelfth graders (Table 1).

Table 1. Lifetime Use of Meth Among High School Students in Alaska and the U.S.

Law Enforcement Data

The extent of and trends in the meth problem are also evident in law enforcement data. The Alaska Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Enforcement (ABADE) annually describes Alaska's drug and alcohol problem using drug seizure and drug arrest data. ABADE noted in 2009 that meth remains widely available in Alaska largely because importation of meth to Alaska has increased dramatically. ABADE reported over a 400 percent increase in grams of meth seized from 3,849.63 grams in 2008 to 20,728.4 grams of meth seized in 2009. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seizures of meth in Alaska also increased over 300 percent from 430.91 grams in 2008 to 1,814.36 grams of meth seized in 2009. Meth-related arrests and/or charges by ABADE also increased from 138 in 2008 to 163 in 2009. According to the ABADE 2009 report, meth remains a significant problem in Alaska despite a reduction in the number of meth labs seized (from 42 in 2005 to nine in 2009).

Medical Facility Data

Other indicators of meth use include hospital data on emergency department (E.D.) admissions involving meth, and admissions to substance abuse treatment facilities for meth abuse. Nationwide data collected on the number of admissions to treatment facilities by type of substance abused is reported in the Treatment Episodes Dataset (TEDS). TEDS data for the state of Alaska show a steady increase in treatment admissions related to meth abuse, from 118 admissions in 2007 to 128 admissions in 2008, and 143 admissions in 2009. Data from Providence Medical Center, located in Anchorage, indicate that E.D. admissions involving meth increased from 27 E.D. admissions in 2005 to 83 E.D. admissions in 2009; the most dramatic increase was from 42 E.D. admissions involving meth in 2008 to 83 in 2009. Notably, however, the data from Alaska Regional Hospital, also located in Anchorage, show a continuing decrease in E.D. admissions: from 13 E.D. meth-related admissions in 2005 to five E.D. admissions in 2009.

AME Project Survey Data

In 2009, the AME Project worked with the UAA Justice Center to conduct a survey of Alaska residents about their awareness of meth. A survey instrument of 109 questions was developed and sent to 10,000 randomly selected adult residents. A total of 2,115 responses to the survey were collected and analyzed. Relative risk was one of the areas the survey asked about. Survey respondents were asked to indicate the relative risk of infrequent (one or two uses) and frequent (three or more uses) substance use. Of the five drugs rated for risk (meth, heroin, marijuana, cocaine, and alcohol), infrequent meth use was rated as a great risk by 74 percent of survey participants, and was second only to heroin use which was rated a great risk by 79 percent (Table 2). Heroin and meth were both rated as a great risk by the largest percentage of survey respondents (95%).

Table 2. Perception of Relative Risk of Infrequent and Regular Substance Abuse

Survey participants were also asked about the ease of accessing various drugs and the extent of the drug problem in their community. They rated the difficulty or ease of a young adult (18-25 years) obtaining each of the following types of drugs: meth, heroin, cocaine, and marijuana. Eighty-eight percent responded that it would be very easy or somewhat easy for young adults to obtain marijuana, while 72 percent of respondents indicated that it would be very easy or somewhat easy for young adults to obtain meth. In evaluating the extent of problems with alcohol and the above drugs in their community, alcohol was the substance most frequently rated by survey respondents as a "big problem" (62%). Meth was rated as a big problem by 52 percent, and more respondents rated meth as a "big problem" in their community than cocaine or heroin abuse.

Survey participants were also asked about exposure to anti-meth advertisements and other non-advertising meth information in newspapers, magazines, on television, and from "other" sources. The most frequently reported "other" source of non-advertising information about meth was word of mouth (41%), indicating that meth was a topic discussed in informal conversations with friends, family, meth users, and co-workers.

Alaska Meth Education Project

Surveying perceptions of Alaskans about meth was just one of the many efforts the statewide Alaska Meth Education Project has undertaken. Since 2006 the AME Project has remained focused on preventing youth from trying meth and on educating all Alaskans about the dangers of the drug. Overall, the AME Project seeks to reduce meth use and meth availability in Alaska. The AME Project coordinator collaborates with representatives from local governments (Municipality of Anchorage, Kenai Peninsula Borough, Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Fairbanks North Pole Borough, and Juneau Borough) that form the project's statewide advisory committee. The committee meets monthly to discuss the trends of meth and other drugs, address gaps in meth use prevention efforts, research meth and other drug related legislation and update their borough mayors on the status of the meth problem in the state of Alaska.

In addition to conducting the 2009 survey, the AME Project has also trained and supported community presenters who facilitated Meth360, a Partnership for a Drug Free America (PDFA) program, resulting in 218 presentations to 3,068 participants in Fairbanks, Kenai and the Mat-Su. The AME Project implemented a statewide "Got Plans? Stay Away From Meth" media campaign via paper, TV, and radio; convened two community summits; and contracted with the UAA Justice center to conduct an evaluation of AME Project efforts. (This report is available at Ongoing AME Project efforts include training community presenters in the facilitation of the WreckEd program, a scenario-based substance abuse prevention program that teaches youth to think about the consequences of substance use. The largest number of meth users are 18 to 25 years old, and the AME Project's goal with the WreckEd program is to reach 11 to 19-year-olds and prevent their using meth as they grow older. In 2010 to date, the AME Project has reached 438 young people throughout the state, and continues to engage new partners willing to incorporate the WreckEd program into their prevention efforts. A low to no cost media campaign that includes the project website and Facebook page continues to be one of the AME Project's outreach/education tools. The project also tracks upcoming legislation regarding substances, and works closely with local substance abuse prevention coalitions around the state.

Funding sources for the AME Project have included the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Formula Grant (JAG), the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP), and the Alaska Community Foundation (ACF). The AME Project, with this funding assistance, has continued the important work of reducing the number of young people who try meth and of educating all Alaskans on the dangers of the drug. Funding for the AME Project coordinator expires in December 2010.

The need for a substance abuse prevention effort in Alaska still remains. A statewide collaboration that tracks meth and other substance use trends is imperative in order to sustain awareness and promote local prevention efforts designed to reduce substance abuse.

Marny Rivera is an assistant professor with the Justice Center. Jenny Baker is the project coordinator for the Alaska Meth Education (AME) Project with the Municipality of Anchorage, Department of Health and Human Services.