WASHINGTON — It's called "meth mouth": a mouth filled with blackened, stained, rotted, crumbling teeth, frequently seen in methamphetamine addicts.
And as users of the drug fill county jails and state prisons, corrections officials say the cost of treating them is skyrocketing.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation Thursday to help ease the strain on prison dental budgets by providing federal grants and to launch an education program designed to warn young people about the dangers of meth by focusing on the severe dental problems the drug can cause.
"It's been one of the worst headaches and nightmares over the past 10 years," said Dr. Pat Murphy, a dentist at the state reformatory in Monroe, Wash., who by his own estimate has treated more than 2,000 cases of meth mouth. "Our resources are tremendously strapped."
In Minnesota, treating meth mouth has roughly doubled the cost of inmate dental care, said Dr. Robert Brandjord, a former president of the American Dental Association.
"Meth is a chemical cocktail that literally rots your teeth away," said Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., co-chairman of the House Meth Caucus. "It takes a terrible toll on the body."
Meth use can cause a string of dental conditions that, when combined, can result in addicts in their late teens and early 20s needing dentures.
The drug dries up saliva, which is crucial to fending off bacteria and tooth decay. People who are high or "tweaking" may not eat for three or four days and eventually can develop a sugar craving that results in consuming dozens of soft drinks in a day. Meth abusers also can have uncontrolled muscle actions that result in grinding or clenching their teeth.
Teeth can be reduced to blackened stubs in less than a year.
At a news conference, congressional aides displayed four blown-up color pictures of a meth addict's mouth.
"When you look at these pictures, you have to wonder why anyone would do meth," said Rep. John Sullivan, R-Okla.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said that even though many states had decided to restrict sales of formerly over-the-counter drugs that contain the "precursor" chemicals used in meth, demand for methamphetamine hadn't slackened, and more and more was coming in from across the borders.
"It is still an epidemic," Baucus said, adding that 50 percent of crime, 50 percent of prison inmates and 50 percent of the children in foster homes in Montana are due to meth.
The lawmakers introduced two bills:
_ One would provide grants to state and local correctional facilities that have been disproportionately affected by meth mouth.
_ The other would provide for enhanced research into the causes, effects and treatment of meth mouth, along with providing grants to elementary and secondary schools to teach about the oral health risks associated with meth use.
The caucus previously has focused on law enforcement, but is starting to consider prevention and education, Larsen said.