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Power of "Meth Caucus" Grows

Post-9/11, local police forces lost federal aid to national security. Citing a drug epidemic, some members of Congress seek to reverse the trend.

June 23, 2005|Steven Bodzin | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration's effort to shift federal money away from traditional police programs and toward anti-terrorism measures is running into a tough obstacle: the growing "meth caucus" in Congress.

The group, which has more than 100 House members, is waging an increasingly effective fight to counter the president's proposed budget cuts and to funnel more money -- not less -- into domestic law enforcement.

The influence of the group, formally known as the Congressional Caucus to Fight and Control Methamphetamine, reflects the political pressures created by the spread of methamphetamine through rural communities in the Midwest, where some police and health agencies are besieged. It also shows a modest swing of the pendulum back toward domestic concerns, like the drug war, that were once priorities but were overshadowed by the post-Sept. 11 counterterrorism push.

"National security needs will continue to demand a large share of federal resources," said caucus member Rep. Jerry F. Costello (D-Ill.), but those needs "must be managed in a way that allows us the ability to address other national priorities, such as the widespread use of methamphetamine."

Last week, the self-dubbed meth caucus defied the White House and GOP congressional leadership by leading the effort to restore $10 million in antidrug funds for police programs -- on top of $350 million they had won through negotiations. The Bush administration had sought to reduce or eliminate five antidrug programs, for a saving of $1.6 billion, in favor of more money for the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

John Horton, assistant deputy director at the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, said the funding cuts were necessary to inject discipline into programs that had grown out of control.

The meth caucus had a different view: "The problem has grown faster than the money chasing the problem," said Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Riverside), a co-founder of the group.

Started in 2001, the bipartisan caucus has grown from 21 mostly West Coast and Rocky Mountain legislators to include lawmakers from 35 states, including Republicans from some of the country's most conservative areas -- western Utah, rural Iowa and exurban Missouri -- who would normally be strong supporters of the administration's security agenda.

The group's growth and influence reflect the widening of the methamphetamine epidemic.

For decades, the drug was associated with white biker gangs on the West Coast. The first meth lab bust was in Santa Cruz in 1969, said Ron Brooks, president of the National Narcotic Officers' Assns.' Coalition in San Francisco.

As recently as a few years ago, Brooks said, police in the Midwest and the Northeast denied that meth was a problem. Last weekend, officers in New Jersey told him they had found their first meth labs since the 1970s.

In 1990, according to the DEA, only Texas and California had more than 20 meth labs; last year, more than 40 states did. In Missouri alone, drug task forces destroyed more than 1,400 labs in a one-year period ending in 2004.

"People are more afraid of a meth lab blowing up than of a plane flying into the state Capitol," said Iowa's director of drug policy, Marvin L. Van Haaften. "They are more afraid of meth labs than of overseas terrorism."

The heartland's meth problem led Midwestern lawmakers to advocate increased aid to state and local police, who they said could not keep up with the proliferation of labs and organized trafficking in small towns.

That advocacy requires bucking a long-term White House policy of reducing aid to local police and moving federal law-enforcement resources into domestic security. Since 2001, the budget for domestic security agencies has risen from $15 billion to $36 billion. The president's request for next year would bump it up to more than $41 billion.

The White House's focus has meant big cuts in antidrug funds to state and local police.

Starting under President George H.W. Bush, the Department of Justice provided Edward Byrne Memorial Grants to local police forces to aid in the war on drugs. (They were named for a New York City police officer killed in 1988 while guarding a witness in a notorious drug case; the first President Bush carried the officer's badge in his pocket and brought it out to emphasize points in speeches.) From 1997 to 2003, the grants received a steady $500 million a year. Another program, the Local Law Enforcement Block Grants, also got about $500 million a year -- until 2001, when the new administration started cutting local aid.

Last year, the two programs were combined and cut by 12%. The administration's budget request for 2006 would eliminate both programs.

The plan passed by the House would instead cut their budgets 45%.

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