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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Gov. Huntsman speaks Wednesday as women who are pledging to stay off meth stand on the stairs at House of Hope in Salt Lake City.

Utah's $17 million methamphetamine public education campaign shifted focus Wednesday as local government leaders and communities were asked to not only recognize the problem but sign a pledge to do their best to get rid of it.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. called on county commissioners, city council members and Utahns statewide to endorse the new phase of the endmethnow campaign. He then set the example by signing one of the campaign's posters.

Standing in the entryway of the House of Hope, a drug use treatment center for mothers getting off methamphetamine where Huntsman first met users in person two years ago, Huntsman said he had revisited the house several times to ask residents how his office could best help users stop and prevent others from ever starting.

Calling the treatment center a "house of hope, pride and also urgency," Huntsman pledged to get the message about what he believes is the most self-destructive and community damaging substance "to every corner of the state, to every county, even those who don't want to talk about it."

Making the education/prevention effort a local concept is necessary to make what has been a successful campaign really take root, said Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank before signing the poster.

Meth is such a "scourge" on society that doesn't just drain the user but the user's loved ones, friends and communities in general, Burbank said.

"It affects all of us, and it's going to take this kind of unprecedented cooperation of government and everyone to increase awareness and improve prevention efforts across the state," he said. "This is exactly how we need to approach this."

Stopping someone from ever trying the drug is the ultimate goal and the ultimate answer, Burbank said after the news conference when asked about options to jailing those who do use and are caught with the illegal substance. Between 60 to 80 percent of people in local jails in Utah were arrested for possessing meth or other illegal street or pharmaceutical drugs.

One of those in jail this past March was Melanie Rhynsburger, now a House of Hope resident. She smoked methamphetamine for 10 years, has two children and always had a job before she was jailed for a positive urine test for the stimulant while on probation.

Rhynsburger spent three and a half weeks in jail, a place she says she never wants to see again. But, she added, the heavily punitive nature of the current approach to helping users does much more harm than good.

Prevention and education is great, she said, "and I am so lucky to be in this program, but the way things work now for the user, their families and communities is the opposite of helping."

It doesn't really get to the heart of the matter, which is both the users and those trying to stop them by locking them up are making a mistake, she said. "You'll feel better for a little while but not for long. People think that if you just give up the drugs your life will magically get better. It doesn't. It gets harder by about 300 percent."

Everyone she knows who is using wants help, and most even hate themselves for not just stopping, she said. Experts blame a lot of factors for why — genetics and drug-induced brain damage — that keeps sending out the need for more. Salt Lake County and state substance abuse prevention regularly report that two-thirds of users want to stop, but treatment capacity can handle barely a third of that.

"The big thing I think is there is such shame and guilt that is part of the whole problem that people won't ask," Rhynsburgersaid. "And they see themselves getting worse and that just makes them more ashamed to ask."

To her, the best possible outcome for any anti-drug use effort would be a change in the public's attitude toward the problem similar to the way people changed how they look at child abuse.

"We used to not talk about that at all, and because we started to, a lot of good has been done," she said. "My hope is that maybe this campaign and my talking about my own drug use will maybe help that happen."

For more information or help, visit endmethnow.com.


E-mail: jthalman@desnews.com