Images from South Dakota's anti-methamphetamine campaign: OnMeth.com

South Dakota is on meth — at least, that’s what the state’s new anti-drug ad campaign launched on Monday says.

Gov. Kristi Noem’s new anti-meth campaign – which features a new website (onmeth.com), billboards and ads with people of differing ages and races saying, “I’m on meth.” – is intended to bring awareness to the meth epidemic in South Dakota.

Noem’s not wrong. There is a meth epidemic in South Dakota. As Noem said in the campaign’s public service announcement, the meth crisis is “growing at an alarming rate” and impacts every community in the state.

The awareness campaign has been widely mocked online. “South Dakota” and “meth” were quickly trending on Twitter. Some people have even proposed alternate campaigns, like “Heroin. We’re up in arms” and “Cocaine. We nose what’s up.”

But Noem seems to have bought into the idea that any publicity is good publicity. In a statement to the Washington Post, she said, “South Dakota’s anti-meth campaign launch is sparking conversations around the state and the country. The mission of the campaign is to raise awareness — to get people talking about how they can be part of the solution and not just the problem. It is working.”

While awareness of meth use in South Dakota is important, we already know what a serious issue it is.

From 2014 to 2018, the state saw a 200 percent increase in people seeking treatment for meth-related addiction, according to the Department of Social Services. Twice as many 12- to 17-year-olds in South Dakota reported using meth in 2018 compared with the national average. This uptick in meth use means more arrests related to meth. In fact, 83 percent of South Dakota’s 2019 court admissions for controlled substances are related to meth.

We don’t need an advertising campaign to tell us about the problem. We need action.

South Dakota needs to put far more of its resources into treatment and do the hard work of untangling the root causes of addiction to actually give people who have dealt with addiction another chance. In doing so, South Dakota also needs to rethink its approach to incarceration.

Simply put, addiction must be treated as a public health crisis, not a public safety crisis. South Dakota’s legislative and executive branches should focus resources on prevention, treatment and rehabilitation rather than passing policies that result in the incarceration of people due to an illness. Focusing primarily on ad campaigns and enforcement does nothing to break the cycle of addiction, incarceration and recidivism.

Though the concept of putting fewer people behind bars may seem like a difficult stance to take in a state as conservative as South Dakota, our tough-on-crime policies can’t fix society’s problems – especially in regards to substance use and addiction.

South Dakota lawmakers should expand specialty courts — and eligibility for participating in these courts explicitly and publicly articulated by state’s attorneys — for substance use disorders, especially in cases of methamphetamine use.

Increased meth use in our state has added further urgency to the need to expand addiction treatment and mental health resources for people with drug dependency.

As the campaign says, meth addiction is everyone’s problem. But a provocative ad campaign won’t solve it. Real reform will.

A version of this column originally appeared in the Pierre Capital Journal

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