Feeling pressure from their grass roots, lawmakers in Congress are pushing the Bush administration to do more about the nation's fastest-growing drug problem: methamphetamine.
Legislation already on the fast track focuses on punishment for meth makers and dealers, ways to stem the flow of the drug into the United States from Mexico and other countries, and stricter controls on cold remedies and other medicines containing chemicals used to make meth.
Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats alike are outspoken about what they see as the administration's slow response.
"I don't believe the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy has gotten the message that a more comprehensive, coordinated effort is needed," says Rep. Mark Souder (R) of Indiana, chairman of the House drug policy subcommittee. That's one of Mr. Souder's gentler criticisms. He has also suggested that White House "drug czar" John Walters might have to step down, and he called "laughable" some of the White House data on meth labs and users.
Among other things, lawmakers criticize the administration's decision to end the $804 million Justice Assistance Program, which funds regional drug task forces. "We want a federal ... strategy to attack meth that is equal to the urgency and action that's taking place in so many communities around the United States," says Rep. Rick Larsen (D) of Washington, co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional Caucus to Fight and Control Methamphetamine. "Congress is not convinced that that is happening."
Law-enforcement agencies have shut down small meth labs nationwide. But the number of busted labs - 9,797 seized last year by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) compared with 162 in 1995 - also indicates that the problem is growing. Moreover, the US crackdown is being undermined, officials say, by Mexican "super labs" able to produce at least 10 pounds of meth in 24 hours. Two-thirds of the meth used in the US today comes from Mexico.
A recent report by The Oregonian newspaper in Portland found that Mexico has been importing far more of the precursor chemicals used to make meth than would reasonably be used to manufacture medicines. Through theft or corruption, much of those chemicals end up in cartel-run meth labs. On the street, the purity of the drug is increasing, law-enforcement officials report.
The problem isn't just Mexico. China, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Switzerland, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates produce large amounts of the chemicals - mainly ephedrine and pseudoephedrine - used to make meth, according to the DEA national drug threat assessment for 2005. The chemicals then are shipped to Mexico.
Mexican meth production and meth smuggling from Mexico (largely through Arizona) "have increased sharply" in the past few years, the DEA reports.
Federal officials estimate there are 1.3 million regular meth users in the US today. Although more individuals abuse marijuana, heroin, and cocaine, high-grade meth can produce reactions that are more violent and effects that are more physiologically damaging, officials say. Says Souder: Meth "has severe addiction consequences that we are still working through, the small labs have incredible environmental impacts, the labs tie up local drug-enforcement teams all out of proportion to the number of addicts, the related violence is greater, children are more in danger because of exploding labs and the abuse or serious neglect of parents, and it is an accelerating threat."
A survey of 500 law-enforcement agencies by the National Association of Counties finds that 87 percent have seen a jump in meth-related arrests in the past three years. Most county sheriffs say meth is now their main drug problem, linked to increases in robberies, domestic violence, assaults, identity thefts, and child neglect. "Investigating and busting small toxic labs, incarcerating and adjudicating meth users, and cleaning up former meth labs are searing a hole in county budgets," Valerie Brown, a county superviser from Sonoma County, Calif., said at a House hearing in July. "County correction facilities are being overwhelmed by the increase in the number of meth-related crimes and associated incarceration costs including mental-health treatment, dental, and other treatment costs."
Many states now restrict the sale of over-the-counter medicines containing pseudoephedrine. This can include limits on how much someone can buy in a month and requirements that purchasers show photo identification.
Businesses are responding, too. Pfizer, Rite-Aid, McNeil, and Target are among the companies that have voluntarily restricted sales of cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine. The online auction company eBay last week banned sales of the key chemicals used to make meth.
The Senate has passed an appropriations bill that would move cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine behind pharmacy counters and limit how much a person can buy to 7.5 grams a month.
In the House, the Methamphetamine Epidemic Elimination Act - sponsored by Rep. Roy Blunt, the new majority leader - would toughen criminal penalties for meth kingpins and manufacturers, prohibit unlimited sales of meth precursor chemicals, set import and manufacturing quotas on such chemicals, amend the international drug-certification process to require federal reporting on major exporting and importing countries of precursor chemicals, and order the State Department to work more closely with Mexico to crack down on producers and traffickers.
Administration officials defend their meth-fighting record. One August operation - dubbed Operation Wildfire - netted 56 clandestine labs, 209 pounds of meth, 201,035 pseudoephedrine tablets, and 158 kilograms of pseudoephedrine powder. More than 400 people were arrested.
"The Department of Justice is committed to using every available resource to ensure that our streets and neighborhoods are safe and that the methamphetamine problem is brought to an end," said Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Some lawmakers remain skeptical. "We're concerned that the administration still doesn't get what we understand within our communities," says Representative Larsen. "Frankly, local communities have done as much as they can, and now they need federal help."