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MATFORCE approaches 10 years of fighting substance abuse

Daily Courier file photo<br>
Sheila Polk

Daily Courier file photo<br> Sheila Polk

PRESCOTT - In late 2005, Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, then in her second term, helped found what was called MATForce.

It stood for "Methamphetamine Advisory Task Force," which was the group's initial focus.

She was the first co-chair, partnering with then-Superior Court Judge (and now, State Supreme Court Justice) Robert Brutinel.

"Our first meeting was three hours of everybody just venting about methamphetamine and how helpless we felt," Polk said. "We came together, just concerned citizens and agency heads, not even knowing solutions."

At the time, she estimated that 80 percent of her office's felony cases dealt with meth.

That led to numerous public education efforts, and, Executive Director Merilee Fowler said, soon Cottonwood became the first community to mandate that ephedrine, a key ingredient in meth, be kept behind the counter at drug stores. The rest of the county soon followed suit, she said.

"They had great success," Fowler said. "We've had significant reductions in meth (use) and even the crimes associated with meth."

Soon, the group expanded to do "Lunch 'n' Learn," mid-day drug education events, and Dump the Drugs days around the quad cities.

In December 2009, the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America named MATForce a 2009 Coalition of Excellence, one of three nationwide, for "successfully reducing substance abuse through evidence-based strategies and practices and increasing opportunities for addiction treatment."

When MATForce was named a Coalition of Excellence, Polk told The Daily Courier

the number of meth and dangerous drug offenses had decreased from 798 offenses in 2006 to 424 in 2009.

Nowadays, the name is simply one word: MATFORCE, and it fights substance abuse of many kinds.

Fowler said the group's current three main focuses are educating on the harms of marijuana, fighting prescription drug abuse, and dealing with underage drinking.

Those efforts take money, and in its early days, the group wasn't well-funded.

"I did fundraising," Polk said. "I did golf tournaments, where I'm out on Saturday, out on tee boxes.

"Today, our budget is $860,000," she said, and Fowler added that grant funding comes from power players such as the Northern Arizona Regional Behavior Authority. "And then we have other small grants that we receive," she said, "so we do have other pots of money."

In the last few months, Polk said, the Phoenix New Times alternative newspaper has begun to target her for her strong stance against legalizing marijuana, and MATFORCE has also taken its hits.

One story mocked MATFORCE for anti-pot billboards it had placed in the Phoenix area, which seemed to have a confusing website address that led to a site owned by someone else.

Another pointed out that a list of 146 supporters on the MATFORCE website contained names of people not associated with the group. That was a mistake, Fowler said, as a website update restored old names that have since been removed.

MATFORCE has grown into a multifaceted organization, Polk said.

"We were asked to take over Community Counts," she said, also known as Youth Count.

"Youth Count came to us ... and said, 'You guys are so successful, you've got all the right players at the table, would you take over what Youth Count does?' she said. "We run (the Yavapai County) AmeriCorp (Project) now, and people don't know that."

Polk said she is also proud that the organization was behind the Yavapai Re-entry Project.

"We are the first in the state to be actively reaching out to folks leaving prison, to help them reintegrate," she said, noting that they have "a pretty good success rate."

MATFORCE "has become the organization that is mobilizing the efforts to build healthier societies," she said.

Follow Scott Orr on Twitter @AZNewsguy. Call him at 928-445-3333 x2038 or 928-642-7705.

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