(UKIAH, Calif.) - While Washington turns public-private partnerships into the newest cliché, a sheriff in California's rural Mendocino County is making such an arrangement pay off in practical terms.
The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office is working with a California software company to help tackle one of the State's most debilitating drug problems: methamphetamine use. Using a Department of Justice grant, the sheriff's office, along with software developer Abalone, LLC, of Moss Beach, California, has developed a three dimensional imaging program called Face2Face, a system to show current and potential users the long-term effects of methamphetamine use.
The sheriff particularly wants to target juvenile drug users in Mendocino County. "There may be more high school kids that drink alcohol and smoke dope," says Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman, "but when kids - and adults - start doing meth, it's all over. It's so addictive there's rarely any turning back."
According to the Partnership for a Drug Free America, meth users often describe their first use of the drug as extremely pleasurable, making them feel like they could do anything. But users
develop a tolerance quickly, needing larger amounts to get high. In some cases, users forego food and sleep and take more meth every few hours for days, 'binging' until they run out of the drug or become too disorganized to continue. Chronic use can cause paranoia, hallucinations, repetitive behavior (such as compulsively cleaning, grooming or disassembling and assembling objects), and delusions of parasites or insects crawling under the skin. Users can obsessively scratch their skin to get rid of these imagined insects. Long-term use, high dosages, or both can bring on full-blown toxic psychosis (often exhibited as violent, aggressive behavior). This violent, aggressive behavior is usually coupled with extreme paranoia. Methamphetamine use can also cause strokes and death.
Allman says 4% of high school juniors in Mendocino County admit to having used methamphetamine in a 30 day period, a large number for a small rural community. (There are approximately 1200 juniors in the County.) The sheriff knows the sooner he can reach other potential users, the better chance he has of preventing an increase in that already alarming number.
"I've seen meth users without any teeth left in their mouths (a condition known as meth mouth); I've seen 30-year old users who look like they're 60. It's a quick downward spiral, so I wanted to figure out a way to get to kids before they started," he says.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the 2007 Monitoring the Future Survey - a national survey of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders show(s) that 1.8 percent of 8th graders, 2.8 percent of 10th graders, and 3.0 percent of 12th graders have tried methamphetamine. In addition, 0.6 percent of 8th graders, 0.4 percent of 10th graders, and 0.6 percent of 12th graders were current (past-month) methamphetamine abusers in 2007.
Believing that appealing to teenage vanity and showing kids what they might look like if they used methamphetamine, Allman was convinced he could encourage them to avoid drugs altogether. "I know kids are stubborn," he says, "but I also know they pay attention to how they look, and no kid wants to look like a prison convict."
But developing new drug prevention programs in a County with an $8 million deficit would prove problematic. The Mendocino County Sheriff's Office already spends approximately 20% of its resources on marijuana-related incidents and investigations, and the local newspaper regularly features news about marijuana busts on the front page. The discussion of drugs in Mendocino County was skewed towards cannabis, away from methamphetamine.
"I don't think that most parents even know that their kids can buy methamphetamine. They're more worried about alcohol and marijuana abuse," says the sheriff.
But unlike alcohol and cannabis, and even cocaine, methamphetamine is supremely addictive, and there are no pharmacological cures once one is hooked.
Like cocaine, meth is a powerful stimulant. It boosts heart rate, breathing, blood pressure and body temperature. When snorted or taken orally it doesn't produce an intense rush but rather a high that can last more than 12 hours. Both cocaine and meth boost brain levels of dopamine, causing feelings of euphoria and increased energy.
"Many people have asked why this is such a big deal if fewer than 100 kids in the County are affected, especially when we have kids drinking and smoking dope all the time," says Allman, "and my simple answer is that meth is so much more addictive and dangerous; it can't be compared to kids drinking on the weekends."
The sheriff started searching for off-the-shelf imaging software on the Internet. He read about a program used by plastic surgeons to show patients before and after computer images, and he figured he could find something similar. He ended up finding Abalone LLC and worked with company CEO Laslo Vespremi to adapt Abalone's plastic surgery program for its new role in the war against meth. The result is Face2Face, a system for use by law enforcement and other government agencies that shows the effects of meth use over time.
"Laslo (Vespremi) loved this public-private project," said Allman. "He immediately saw the power of going directly to kids, and he also understood that our money constraints meant we weren't working with budget of a Hollywood plastic surgeon."
Abalone Vespremi was inspired by sheriff Allman's initiative and desire to find something to appeal to kids. "Face2Face uses 3-D technology, something with which kids, especially computer gamers, are already familiar," says Vespremi. "It's much more interactive than passing out a pamphlet or flyer with an anti-drug message."
(Indeed, even Hollywood thinks so. Dream Works' new release, Monsters vs. Aliens, signals the beginning of (an) era, not just a passing fad, according to DreamWorks chief executive Jeffrey Katzenberg.)
The Face2Face System combines hardware and software. The hardware consists of two high-resolution digital cameras mounted on a stereo bar. The cameras are linked to a laptop computer and synchronized by remote control. The two cameras fire simultaneously and take two identical images offset from each other by a few degrees, like an old fashioned stereoscope. Combining the two offset images in the computer results in a 3-D image on the screen. Proprietary software can then manipulate the image and show kids how their faces age after long-term methamphetamine use.
(Abalone LLC donates 10% of all sales to the Mendocino Drug Education Program. The complete software/hardware system retails for $3,795.)
Vespremi says that there are already expensive, room-sized 3-D software systems, but none this compact that utilize off-the-shelf digital cameras. "The other trick," he says, "is a background pattern, or screen, placed behind a person's head when the picture is taken. It's a sort of barcode that communicates camera position, angle and focal information to the software. The software then triangulates a tight 3-D mesh and texture for the screen shot of the face and head."
Face2Face has applications for Homeland Security, as well, says Vespremi. "A suspect can alter his or her appearance to fool a two dimensional camera," he says, "but no one can change all the three dimensional characteristics of a head, like mouth, forehead or nose shape." Vespremi says the system is simple and inexpensive enough be deployed at airports and other points of entry.
The Mendocino County Sheriff's Office currently demonstrates Face2Face at local high schools, regional fairs, and other public places and events where teenagers congregate. The sheriff says it's important to seek out kids in neutral places, away from their parents. "Kids need to see this and make their own decisions," he says, "they don't need mom and dad around to say 'I told you so'."
Mendocino County community service officer Maureen Wattenburger demonstrates Face2Face for high school students. She says they're enthralled enough just seeing their own face in 3-D on the computer screen, "but when we adjust the program to show how their facial features change after six months, one and three years of drug use, they shriek in horror," says Wattenburger. "Most of them refuse to let me print out a screen shot because it's so ugly."
One freshman from Ukiah High School told Wattenburger there's no way he ever wanted to look like a homeless addict. Sheriff Allman asks, "What better way to get an anti-drug message across than by using a tool that kids can relate to (the computer) to turn them into a revolting visage who won't be getting asked to the prom?"