'Faces of Meth' Uses Portraits of Addiction to Warn Against Drug Use

With just a click of a mouse, the image of a healthy, shiny face transforms into a skeletal portrait — a toothless grin surrounded by scabbed skin and a gray complexion.

This is FacesofMeth.us, a Web site that shows the brutal effects of what methamphetamine does to people. Its goal is simple: Use real life images to educate kids about the dangers of methamphetamine.

• Click here to see photos of Faces of Meth.

The site is the brainchild of Multnomah County Sheriff's Deputy Bret King, who came up with the idea while booking inmates into the Multnomah County Jail in Portland, Oregon. King, who collected the pictures of meth addicts, noticed how repeated abusers' physical appearances had changed horribly.

Methamphetamine — a highly addictive concoction made from such noxious ingredients as lithium batteries and farm fertilizer supplies — is one of the most widely abused controlled substances in Oregon. It's cheap, it's easy to buy and it packs a bigger punch than cocaine.

Since its launch in 2004, the Faces of Meth program has been educating Oregon kids about what the drug does to your body and mind. It presents harrowing stories of meth users and shows the haunting before-and-after images of their faces.

Sheriff's Chief of Staff Christine Kirk said Faces of Meth is not a scared-straight approach, but rather "real life honesty to keep kids from ever trying it."

"The program has been embraced because it talks about the impact meth use has on everyone," Kirk said. "Each one of these people has a loved one that their addiction is affecting."

The photos may be hard to look at, but people are flocking to the site, which has had nearly 350,000 visits. Kirk said she has fielded requests for information from Canada and England and as far away as Australia.

"The program has exceeded expectations," she said. "The impact of the images is without boundaries."

Faces of Meth has also been picked up on countless other Web sites. There even is a video version on YouTube, set to the Verge song, "The Drugs Don't Work."

• Click here to view the YouTube video.

While the pictures tell a cautionary tale, they are also driving the curious to the site for glimpses of the macabre.

Douglas Rushkoff, a columnist and author who writes on the media, said jarring images like these have been used throughout history, and for more than just educational reasons.

"It's why the Elephant Man was in the circus," he said. "It's the fascination behind any freak show."

Drug educators around the nation hope that Faces of Meth and other campaigns like it may provide what it takes to keep kids away from meth.

In Alabama, officials have launched "ZeroMeth," using the same types of images, showing the brutal effects of the drug in a frightening progression. The $1 million ad campaign includes a billboard that features a young woman’s cracked lips pursed over black teeth and gums, with the message, "I used to be pretty," to drive home the point. Similar efforts are in place in Tennessee and Montana.

Rushkoff said that while the changes in appearance of meth users are horrifying, people are attracted to them because they're of the addicts' own making.

"This is reality TV to the extreme," he said.

• Click here to visit FacesofMeth.us

Anderson McGregor contributed to this report.