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Mike Cihak, Jill Beauregard and Jim Beauregard

From left to right, Mike Cihak, Jill Beauregard and Jim Beauregard (along with Casey Wagner) spent about six months researching, scripting and producting the DVD "Meth in the Heartland: A Community's Response."

Combating the scourge

Grad students from Morris community produce educational DVD about methamphetamine

By Rick Moore

Dec. 1, 2006

If ever there was ever a drug you should avoid, it's meth. Listen to a story or two about its intense grip on users' lives, or look at how it can ravage a once-normal face, and you're filled with a sense of dread. If you're a recovering user, even years removed, you may still have a visceral craving for the drug.

Within the last decade, methamphetamine--meth, for short--has become one of America's biggest scourges, and it has taken its greatest toll in rural areas, where meth has been manufactured in clandestine structures or deep in the woods, often far removed from the masses--and from easy detection.

But four graduate students from the Morris community (Jim Beauregard, Jill Beauregard, Mike Cihak and Casey Wagner) have taken a creative and tangible step in the fight against meth by producing an educational DVD about the drug, "Meth in the Heartland: A Community's Response." The DVD was their final project in the master of education program offered online by the University of Minnesota, Duluth. The students worked collaboratively with the University of Minnesota, Morris through its Center for Small Towns.

According to Jim Beauregard, who is also the chief of police for the city of Morris, the students decided they wanted to educate a mass audience in rural Minnesota about a critical issue in their own back yards. "And if we were able to move [the discussion] beyond our community, that would be an add-on," he says.

According to the video, methamphetamine was first developed in the early 1900s as a stimulant to combat fatigue and narcolepsy, and during the World War II era it was used to help soldiers--and factory workers--stay alert.

But in the latter part of the century, meth morphed into a more potent drug, and its current scope and ramifications are staggering. Available in powdered or crystalline form, meth can be smoked, snorted, injected or even sprinkled into coffee or soda, the DVD says. Users feel a sense of euphoria and are able to stay awake for long periods of time. The drug is relatively cheap, and a quarter of a gram is enough for users to get high five or six times--and hooked on meth for the rest of their life.

The DVD ends with a positive message, noting that while recidivism rates for meth can be high, there are effective treatment options. And the more that communities are aware of meth and its challenges, the more they'll be able to rally around recovering users and, most importantly, educate young people to never try the drug.

And since "meth use and crime appear to go hand in hand," Beauregard says, the implications for law enforcement are immense. Since 1989 Minnesota's prison population has grown by 189 percent (due largely to the growth of drug offenders) and the Department of Corrections says that 39 percent of the inmate growth in the last five years can me attributed to meth offenders. A county commissioner from Crow Wing County in central Minnesota estimates that in 2004 methamphetamine cost the county $1.8 million in law enforcement, legal, health and social services expenses.

A primary purpose of the video was to dispel some myths about meth--chief among them that it's relatively easy for a user to give up the drug. Cihak says he was surprised to learn "just how addictive it is.... After we talked to [recovering users], two relapsed."

National Methamphetamine Awareness Day

Nov. 30 was National Methamphetamine Awareness Day, a day dedicated to creating increased awareness of this highly addictive and dangerous drug. In the U of M Moment, Ellie McCann, a family relations educator with the U of M Extension Service, says awareness needs to begin with parents because they have a critical role in communicating with their teen about the use of meth.

Another thing that surprised Cihak was discovering the amount of toxicity in meth--it can cause irreversible damage to parts of the brain, including those controlling memory and taste.

Cihak and Beauregard both note that meth production in rural Minnesota has fallen in recent years, thanks in large part to action by the Minnesota Legislature making it extremely difficult to obtain large quantities of anhydrous ammonia and antihistamines like Sudafed--two critical ingredients of meth. But according to Cihak, that shouldn't suggest that the meth problem is disappearing.

"That has decreased the amount of creation in the state, but that was giving the false [impression] that the problem is going down," he says. "The production has gone down, but the use has not."

While meth production has tapered in rural Minnesota, the slack is being picked up by "super labs" in Mexico and in southwestern states like Arizona and California. Cihak says this imported meth is "much more pure, it's much more powerful. It is toxic."

Another bitter irony about meth, Cihak says, is that users typically never achieve the same level of high as the first time they use the drug, and not for lack of trying. "That's the pinnacle," he says, "and you'll just try and try to get it again."

But the DVD ends with a positive message, noting that while recidivism rates for meth can be high, there are effective treatment options. And the more that communities are aware of meth and its challenges, the more they'll be able to rally around recovering users and, most importantly, educate young people to never try the drug.

A portion of the cover art that says Meth in the Heartland: A Community's Response The DVD was scripted, recorded and edited by all four students, but most of the editing and shooting was done by Wagner, a former computing services staff member at the University of Minnesota, Morris, and Cihak, UMM's assistant director of marketing communications and design. In all, the students interviewed about 30 people for the DVD, from recovering users and counselors to legislators and law enforcement officials. The final product, which took about six months to produce, is a well-crafted, comprehensive look at a problem that touches all ages and strata of society. As Judge Gerald Selbel notes in the video, "Meth is an equal opportunity drug."

The DVD was shown on Pioneer Public TV in September. Lakeland Public Television in Bemidji has announced that it will air the documentary at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 29, and again at 5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 30. (Satellite subscribers in Minnesota receive Lakeland Public Television on Direct TV channel 22 and on Dish Network Channel 8583.) Other Minnesota public TV stations have also shown interest in broadcasting the documentary.

"We think it worked very well, and we're still getting feedback on it," says Jim Beauregard. "We've been receiving orders for the DVD from around the world, so this isn't just a local problem, it's a problem facing a lot of other people.... We're reaching this large, diverse audience, and that was our objective."

The video can be viewed online at the Morris police department Web site using QuickTime or RealPlayer, or by ordering a DVD from the Morris City Police Department at 320-589-1155 or UMM's Media Services at 320-589-6150.