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GUY RAZ, host:

Now, before Flash was born, back in the 1980s, TV watchers couldn't avoid this commercial.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Man: OK, last time. This is drugs. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?

RAZ: That campaign from the Partnership for a Drug-Free America arrived just about the time the drug methamphetamine started to become a bigger problem. And since then, meth has ravaged many small towns and rural areas.

Tom Allman is the sheriff in one of those places, Mendocino County in Northern California. And he was trying to figure out a way to keep kids from even trying the drug. So he turned to a computer programmer named Laslo Vespremi, and he asked him to develop software that would digitally alter images of those kids, to show them what they'd look like after using meth.

Teenagers sit down in front of a computer screen, and one of Sheriff Allman's staffers tells them:

Mr. TOM ALLMAN (Sheriff, Mendocino County, California): We're going to take a picture of you. You're young. You're vibrant. You have great-looking skin. Your hair is there, your teeth are there. But we want to show you what you would look like after six months, one year, three years of using meth. And the software that Laslo designed morphs it into the physiological effects that meth causes: the open scabs, the droopy skin, the hair loss. If I could choose one phrase to say what this program does, it strikes at the vanity of teenagers.

RAZ: Hmm. You have been in law enforcement for almost 30 years, I understand, and it's safe to say you've seen a lot of teenagers and drug use over the years. What is it about methamphetamine that has law-enforcement officers so concerned?

Mr. ALLMAN: The addiction to methamphetamine is over 90 percent after the first-time use.

RAZ: Wow.

Mr. ALLMAN: And my goal is to just stop that first-time use. I live in a small town of Willits, where the population is less than 5,000. And I'm going to tell you, I do not know of a single person who could not relate to me of a connection they have with a friend or family member that methamphetamine has been involved with.

RAZ: Sheriff Allman, what kind of reactions have you been getting from students who have undergone this digital transformation to see themselves as meth addicts - what they might look like?

Mr. ALLMAN: The emotions we get from kids go from being scared - and some kids start crying when they see the devastating effect that meth can do to their complexion. And when I say we strike at the vanity, that's exactly what's happened. It was the way to crack the nut, to say, this could happen to you.

RAZ: Whether or not this was your intention, there is kind of a fear aspect to this program. How can you be sure that it will work, that that message will stick with those kids?

Mr. ALLMAN: Well, I can't be sure of it. And our intent was not to use scare tactics, because scare tactics don't work. And the commercial that you played at the beginning of your program of the frying egg, that didn't work, and the "Just Say No" didn't work.

So we don't know what does work. But I can tell you that the software is having more of a positive effect than anything that I've ever been involved with on the drug fight.

RAZ: That's Tom Allman. He's the sheriff of Mendocino County, and he joined me from member station KZYX in Philo, California.

Sheriff Allman, thank you so much.

Mr. ALLMAN: Thank you, Guy.

RAZ: And you can see an example of how my face was digitally altered at our Web site, npr.org.

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