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For much of the country, meth is the No. 1 problem drug

WASHINGTON—The methamphetamine industry spawned in California's Central Valley continues to proliferate, and so does the political response to it.

Sheriffs in 48 percent of counties polled nationwide now identify meth as their No. 1 drug problem, according to a new survey released Tuesday. Law enforcement officials are warning that meth-related crimes have surpassed other drug problems, boosted workloads and filled local jails.

"The abuse of this drug is spreading from the West to the East, though the problem continues to be most severe in the West," said Larry Naake, executive director of the National Association of Counties.

A National Association of Counties' telephone survey of 500 jurisdictions found that 55 percent of sheriffs surveyed reported an increase in meth-related robberies or burglaries over the past year, while 73 percent reported having to pay more in overtime to handle the meth-related workload.

Meth problems outpace those attributed to heroin, cocaine and marijuana, according to the new study.

Sheriffs in 42 percent of Georgia counties surveyed last year identified meth as their No. 1 problem. This year, 63 percent of the Georgia sheriffs cited meth as their top problem. Similarly, meth was cited as the No. 1 problem in 25 percent of North Carolina counties last year and in 44 percent of North Carolina counties this year.

"Instead of just manufacturing it in the Sierra Nevada foothills, they manufacture it in Mexico and are shipping it out through their distribution networks," said Bill Ruzzamenti, director of the Central Valley High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, based in Fresno, Calif.

With its vast rural spaces and large immigrant population, California's Central Valley became one early focus of meth production. Originally associated with motorcycle gangs, law enforcement officials say, the region's large-scale labs later became the work of Mexican drug-trafficking organizations.

The Central Valley HIDTA got started in 1999, providing federal funds to help coordinate state, local and federal anti-meth efforts in the region from Sacramento to Bakersfield. Administered through the White House drug czar's office, the California organization was the first of its kind devoted to meth.

Anti-meth task forces now have sprung up nationwide, each with its own political champion. The House of Representatives' latest Justice Department spending bill steers anti-meth funding to Kentucky, Florida, Washington state, Missouri and beyond.

"Counties are at the front line of responding to the methamphetamine crisis," said Bill Hansell, president of the National Association of Counties and a commissioner from Umatilla County in Oregon. "We need a comprehensive strategy that deals with all aspects of the meth problem."

While conducted scientifically, the survey is also a political document intended to rally support for additional federal spending. In some cases, the statistics are skewed to make a point.

County officials, for instance, noted that "100 percent" of counties in California and Arizona reported that meth is the No. 1 drug problem.

Buried on the back of the report is the fact that only three counties in California and one county in Arizona were part of the survey. The report also fails to note that more counties identified meth as the No. 1 drug problem last year—58 percent of those surveyed, compared with 48 percent this year.

The meth-fighting grants that county officials favor have come under fire from federal auditors. Many appear misdirected because of political pressure, a Justice Department Office of Inspector General auditor warned earlier this year.

"As a result of the significant use of congressional earmarks in the Meth Initiative, available funding is not always directed to the areas of the country with the greatest need," auditors noted.

Hawaii, for example, reported only 76 lab seizures between 1998 and 2004. But the state received more meth grant funding than almost any other state. Daniel Inouye, its senior senator, is the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. Oklahoma, by contrast, received about $1 million less than Hawaii, although the state reported more than 4,000 meth-related incidents during the same period.

The political momentum for tackling meth spans more states every year, with some 150 lawmakers now claiming membership in the Congressional Meth Caucus. Consequently, Congress is giving short shrift to the Bush administration's efforts to redirect or reduce funding.

Soon, the Senate will take up a Justice Department funding bill that includes $85 million for grants to fight methamphetamine. The House is proposing $99 million for the grants, more than twice what the Bush administration asked for.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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