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Teenagers who create public art with an anti-meth message have a chance to make big money this summer.

Thursday is the deadline for entering the Montana Meth Project's Paint the State contest. Paint the State is designed to encourage teens to harness their creativity to battle the state's methamphetamine crisis.

The contest, open to youths 13 to 18 years old, offers more than $300,000 in prize money. Each of Montana's 56 counties will hold a contest with prizes of $3,000 for first place, $2,000 for second place and $1,000 for third place. The first-place winners in the county contests will advance to the statewide competition for a chance to win a $10,000 grand prize. Montana artist Russell Chatham will select the statewide winner Aug. 9.

Carbon County commissioner John Prinkki, who traveled to Billings on Monday to drum up support for the Paint the Town project, said meth abuse isn't limited to Montana's large cities. Law enforcement officials estimate that one-fourth of all felony cases filed in Carbon County involve methamphetamine, he said.

Prinkki, who recently attended an anti-meth conference put on by the Montana Association of Counties, said meth dealers are using increasingly sophisticated tactics to hook new customers. Some are lacing marijuana cigarettes with meth or offering meth free to first-time users, he said.

Stillwater County Commissioner Maureen Davey said that most of the prisoners whom Stillwater County sends to the Yellowstone County Detention Facility are involved in methamphetamine.

Registration and more information are available on the Internet at www.paintthestate.org. Each entrant must complete the online form, and those who are under 18 must have a parent's permission. Teens can enter the contest individually or as a group.

Paint the State is an offshoot of the Montana Meth Project, an anti-meth campaign underwritten largely by software billionaire and part-time Montana resident Thomas Siebel. Siebel donated $5.6 million from the Thomas and Stacey Siebel Foundation last August to launch the campaign.

PP&L Montana and Blue Cross and Blue Shield have donated the prize money for Paint the State.

Each entry in the Paint the State contest must be an original work of art that includes a clear anti-meth campaign.

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Works will be judged on artistic merit, public visibility and the strength of the work's anti-meth message.

Yellowstone County Commissioner Bill Kennedy said the anti-meth pieces can range from the size of a poster to the size of a billboard. Barns, silos, store windows and any other large object could carry an anti-meth message, he said.

"This contest will save kids' lives," Kennedy said. "We need to get back to educating kids and get them involved."

Those who enter the contest must have their works on display from July 10 to 15.

Kennedy said the county commissioners or their appointees will be in charge of judging county contests.

Contact Tom Howard at thoward@billingsgazette.com 657-1261.

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