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Forum points to dangers of meth use

Georgia Meth Project Executive Director Jim Langford, right, participates in the Georgia Meth Project community forum in partnership with Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital and the Dougherty County School System Wednesday night at Phoebe Northwest.

Georgia Meth Project Executive Director Jim Langford, right, participates in the Georgia Meth Project community forum in partnership with Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital and the Dougherty County School System Wednesday night at Phoebe Northwest.

ALBANY -- With 42 percent of child endangerment cases and 43 percent of federal convictions in Georgia involving methamphetamine use, officials say it is time to attack the problem on a regional level.

That message came to Albany on Wednesday.

The Georgia Meth Project, in partnership with Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital and the Dougherty County School System, hosted a community forum at Phoebe Northwest Wednesday to educate the public on the dangers of meth use -- and to get more area volunteers on board the prevention effort.

Georgia Meth Project Executive Director Jim Langford kicked off the forum by providing background on the project and discussing the need for it at a time in which officials perceive the state's meth problem as getting bigger.

"We have had great success with educational outreach in schools, and one of the most important parts of our campaign is community outreach," Langford said. "So, we are here to recruit volunteers and engage young people.

"If we do a good job here, it will help us in surrounding areas. Albany has a big influence on surrounding counties."

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, meth is one of the greatest drug threats to the nation. The agency recently reported that the drug is at its highest levels of availability, purity and lowest cost since 2005 due to increased quantities of the drug being imported from Mexico and growing rates of small-scale domestic production. It is estimated that meth costs the country between $16.2 billion and $48.3 billion per year in treatment, health care and foster care services, as well as the costs of crime and lost productivity associated with the drug.

It costs the state of Georgia alone $1.3 billion a year, officials with the project say.

Langford, as well as as a few others associated with the organization, have said that based on response from area partners so far, it appears the campaign will have a big impact on Albany.

Darrell Sabbs, community benefits coordinator at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, said Phoebe is actively working through specialists to help not only the meth users who come into the hospital, but everyone they touch as well.

The best way to combat the problem, officials say, is to not let it become a problem to begin with.

"We just felt that being a leading health care provider, it was important for us to sound the alarm on this devastating crisis in the community," Sabbs said. "We see burn victims (from meth labs), and we see devastated families -- and we want to get ahead of that."

The forum was intended to encourage conversations between parents and children, and initiate community dialogue about the impacts of meth use not only in Georgia, but also in the Albany area.

Recent examples of local impact include two meth busts in late December within days of each other -- one in Albany and another in Lee County -- as well as the discovery of what remained of what authorities described a "mom and pop" meth operation on Sylvester Road earlier this week.

Ralph Craven, now 35 and living in Leesburg, is also an example of local impact. At age 22, he was given a drink at a party unaware it contained crystal meth.

After that, he was hooked on the drug for 12 years. Coming off roughly a year in jail, he is now sober. Since getting out of prison, he has been involved in the movement to prevent the spread of meth use by talking to students about his experience.

"When I was first given meth, I didn't know what it was," he recalled. "It turned me on like a light switch. Whenever I got sober, it seemed like there was an excuse to do it again.

"It tore my family apart."

Attendees were given an opportunity at the forum to learn more about the risks of using meth, and ask questions to local experts in law enforcement and health care on the subject.

Among those panelists was Barbara Turner, student support services director for the Dougherty school system, who said that the message of meth prevention is already being presented at the schools through trained peer leaders as well as others that deal with it firsthand, including counselors and school nurses.

Even though the target group is ages 12-17, Turner said there are plans for the peer leaders to eventually take the message into elementary schools.

"You never know when a child will be presented with the opportunity," she said. "When a peer tells them not to get involved, they will listen to them."

The Georgia Meth Project, launched in 2010, is a non-profit organization that implements a range of advertising and community action programs to reduce meth use in the state. It is affiliated with the Meth Project, a national non-profit organization headquartered in Palo Alto, Calif., aimed at significantly reducing first-time meth use through public service messaging, public policy and community outreach.

Founded by businessman Thomas M. Siebel as a private-sector response, the research-based campaign has been cited by the White House as one of the most effective prevention programs and a model for the nation, officials say.

For more information, visit www.georgiamethproject.org.