Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

February 1, 2013

Lessons learned early from ‘Faces of Meth’ campaign

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— I was a junior in high school when our school officials figured the methamphetamine problem in our area was becoming enough of a problem that they needed classroom education on it.

We came into class one afternoon to find two of our school resource officers with our teacher. After a few jokes were tossed out over which classroom troublemaker was getting taken downtown, the officers began their presentation with a few pictures. The first was innocent enough. It was a nice girl probably not too much older than we were. The officers told us how she had been turned on to this new drug called “meth.” Then they changed the screen.

You could barely tell it was the same girl. She looked like she had been made over for a zombie movie in some ways. The officers informed us this was the same girl after six months on meth. They proceeded to show us the rest of the less than glamorous “before” and “after” shots collected from the “Faces of Meth” campaign.

I have to admit, appealing to a teenager’s sense of vanity is a pretty smart idea. These people looked like they had aged 20 years in a period of months. It was as if the officer knew prom was coming up in six months when he told us in a matter of months it could be us.

My generation was sort of on the tail-end of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign. Most of us were born after Reagan had left office, but the remnants of the campaign were still felt in our school hallways and during school assemblies. They brought in the “big kids” from the high school for programs as well as motivational speakers designed to appeal to our desires to be “cool.” They gave us coloring books and stickers. But the one thing I don’t think they gave us was a healthy dose of cold, shocking reality.

Of course, most of these campaigns and assemblies tapered off as we got older. I can remember few times we were talked to about drugs past the sixth grade up until that one day in high school. Looking back, I don’t know how effective “Just Say No” was for us. The same amount of kids in my generation used drugs and alcohol as did in the generation of my parents. A lot of these kids were the same ones leading the “Just Say No” chants and championing the school D.A.R.E. program. For all the clever advertising, jingles and campaigning, some things are harder than saying “no.”

Which is probably why they devised the methamphetamine campaign they presented to my high school psychology class based on scare tactics and gross outs. The only thing about that visit that stands out in my mind more than those mug shots is the list of ingredients they read off to us: drain cleaner, match sticks, brake and lighter fluid, battery acid, antifreeze, and just about anything you can think of you wouldn’t want in your body. The officers informed us all of these were items their chemical labs had detected in the meth they had uncovered from various labs. All of these were also items people had willingly put in their bodies, chasing a dangerous high.

They went on to tell us stories about victims of meth lab explosions they had encountered as well as what many meth users they had arrested had experienced in prison. Of course, I wondered then as I do now if those officers were more worried about us than they let on. If there was anything I learned that day it was that some drugs do not discriminate. We saw mug shots of cheerleaders and soccer moms rather than the usual image of a “drug user” they had painted for us during our elementary school days.

Soon afterward, it seemed like meth was everywhere. National advertising campaigns attempting to terrify were all over TV and the Internet. Suddenly, we knew people who had been arrested for making and using this drug that a year before had been unheard of. Like moonshining during the days of prohibition, there were entire towns that seemed in on the meth-making business.

I can’t honestly say it was any courage in the face of peer pressure or personal convictions gained during those “Just Say No” days that prevented me from going down the road of some of my peers. Honestly, I never had the opportunity to “just say no.” No one ever asked me, probably because I didn’t seem like “the type,” whatever that is. They also probably knew my parents would hunt down and maim me and anyone else involved if they discovered that sort of thing was going on in their child’s life.

Looking back, I know my life would have most likely been different had different opportunities been presented to me. Most of all, I can’t help but wonder how the lives of classmates and friends would be different if they hadn’t made that choice, if they hadn’t given up their chances to be successful. For many of them, I just hope that one day they will have the courage to just say no.

Kate Coil is a reporter with the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at Follow her at @BDTCoil.