War on meth takes a hit E-mail
Written by Mark Nichols   

Sadly there just isn't enough money to pay for many of the things Americans feel are important. As a result priorities are being defined on the fly. The war on terror, and agencies that fall within that mission like DHS, have yet to take a hit in terms of funding but the war on drugs is clearly on the table. The federal funds local law enforcement agencies rely on to locate, bust and dismantle meth labs are largely gone. According to a recent Associated Press report, police and sheriff's departments in states that produce much of the nation's methamphetamine have made a sudden retreat in what is a critical battle in the larger war on drugs.

 

Local law enforcement agencies are not going to be pursuing meth labs for a simple reason. They can no longer afford to clean up the toxic waste generated by labs. While there has always been tremendous debate in law enforcement circles and the larger culture as to whether a strict, law enforcement only approach to drug use and abuse was the right approach, there was never any question that the resources law enforcement requires to fight drugs would be available.

That's no longer the case. Even though there's clear evidence that the meth trade is flourishing, many law enforcement agencies just can't pay to send agents undercover, conduct door-to-door investigations, and setting up stakeouts at pharmacies to catch people buying large amounts of ephedrine.

The drastic cuts in terms of local law enforcement funding have been wreaking havoc on things like training for some time. But the steep cuts began last February after the federal government canceled a program that provided millions of dollars to help local agencies dispose of seized labs. Since then the number of labs seized has plummeted by a third in some key meth-producing states and by a whopping two-thirds in Alabama.

The trend is certain to continue considering that for all the talk about the federal debt the situation is much worse at the state and local level- particularly in states that have added balanced budget amendments to their constitutions. Without the resources needed for costly clean-ups, local law enforcement is scaling back in a big way.

"They're not actively out there looking for it,'' Tony Saucedo, meth enforcement director for Michigan State Police told the AP. "And the big issue is money. We have taken 10 steps backward.'' There's no doubt that meth trafficking remains a growth industry. Record busts are being reported in some states that can afford to fund their own cleanups. But in places that rely on federal money, law enforcement agencies are hamstrung.

At least one sheriff became so frustrated that he considered burning meth waste illegally in a landfill rather than leaving it in neighborhoods where curious children could find it. The numbers are startling. Lab seizures were down 32 percent through May 31 in Tennessee, which led the nation in seizures in 2010.

The numbers were similar or worse in other leading meth states: down 33 percent in Arkansas, 35 percent in Michigan, and 62 percent in Alabama. All of those states relied heavily on funding from the federal Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS program. It offered local agencies $19.2 million in 2010. That money was cut during budget negotiations.

There are some law enforcement officials that don't believe that the number of reductions in labs seized are accurate. "Do you really think our labs fell that much?'' Tommy Farmer, state meth task force coordinator for Tennessee asked reporters. "Hell no.''

But the numbers paint a bleak picture. The most recent national survey from the Department of Health and Human Services shows that after declining for several years when the money to clean up seized labs was available, the number of first-time meth users rose in 2009 to 154,000, up from 95,000 the previous year.

Under Community Oriented Policing Services, the agency that seizes a lab notifies the Drug Enforcement Administration, which hires a contractor to remove the meth debris and take it to a disposal site. Now that the tax payer money's gone up or been allocated to other priorities, some states are trying to pay their own way.

Oklahoma was among the national leaders in meth lab busts in 2010, when it used federal funds for cleanup. And after that money dried up, the state agreed to pick up the tab. As a result, lab seizures in Oklahoma have continued to climb. The number of seized labs is up 25 percent this year.

But the state budget wasn't prepared for the expenditures. Oklahoma recently had to cancel plans to hire a combined 20 drug investigators and educators to pay for meth lab cleanups. "


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