BY MALIA RULON | ENQUIRER WASHINGTON BUREAU 05/31/06
QUANTICO, Va. - Staring down a dimly lit hall with rooms full of plastic figures meant to resemble drug traffickers - some hiding under bed covers, others wielding fake guns - isn't how most congressmen study the nation's burgeoning methamphetamine problem.
But Rep. Bob Ney, whose rural, central Ohio district is the scene of skyrocketing meth use and production, recently opted for an unusual tactic in researching how Drug Enforcement Administration programs combat the problem.
Those programs are in danger of losing money.
In Ohio, the number of meth lab discoveries has risen sharply from 14 in 1999 to 354 in 2004 and 429 in 2005, with many of those concentrated in the southern part of the state.
Clermont County, for example, is known as a hot spot for meth labs, accounting for 126 of the labs found between 2001 and 2004, according to the Clermont County Sheriff's Office.
Arrests there have continued to climb, reaching 84 - or seven a month - in 2004.
In April, Ney donned a blue jump suit, flak jacket, gas mask and Kevlar helmet to charge a mock meth lab in Quantico, where DEA agents train about 1,200 local law enforcement officers each year.
"I wanted to come out here to learn, which I obviously did, how they work with local officials, how local officials get here, the costs of it, how they're tackling the problem," said Ney, the first member of Congress to visit the training lab. "The dangerousness of it is phenomenal."
That training program could lose federal funding because of the cost of the Iraq war and hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
The Bush administration has proposed severe cuts to federal programs that support state and local drug enforcement efforts.
Under the Bush budget, funding for High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas would be curtailed; and the "Meth Hot Spots" program administered by the Justice Department's Community Oriented Policing Services program would be reduced by 37 percent, from $63.6 million this year to $40 million next year.
At a May 23 hearing in the House government reform subcommittee on criminal justice, drug policy and human resources, the director of the Southwest Ohio Regional Drug Task Force told lawmakers that these cuts would eliminate some of Ohio's drug task forces and cripple many others.
"Without these resources, the drug investigations and enforcement will dwindle to the point of extensive ineffectiveness," said John Burke, a 38-year law enforcement veteran who also commands the Greater Warren County Ohio Drug Task Force.
Ney is among a growing number of House lawmakers working to restore the cuts.
The meth problem "needs to be more on the radar screen of Congress," Ney said during his April 25 visit to the DEA training lab. "It's not a small problem. It's a huge problem. I'm just not sure that everybody's aware exactly how big."
A bill pending in the Senate would reauthorize the Office of National Drug Control Policy and create an information clearinghouse that would help communities and local law enforcement officers nationwide share "best practices" in combating meth.
"This clearinghouse will help us in our fight against meth by finding those who need assistance and connecting them with those who can help," said Sen. Mike DeWine, a Cedarville Republican who authored part of the bill.
A version of the bill passed the House in March.
Also in March, Congress reauthorized the Patriot Act, which cracked down on meth by requiring pharmacies to strictly regulate the sale of popular over-the-counter cold medicines that contain pseudoephedrine, the main ingredient used to make meth.
The law requires these drugs to be sold from behind the counter and for people who buy them to show ID and sign a logbook.
The law also provides $119 million for local law enforcement and social service agencies to combat the meth problem and assist children victimized by the drug.
The federal law was enacted after Gov. Bob Taft signed a bill by Ohio state Sen. John Carey, R-Wellston, last January that forces pharmacies to strictly regulate the same chemical.
Meth, which goes by the street names of speed, crank, ice, chalk, glass, crystal and fire, was identified by the National Association of Counties as the country's biggest drug problem, ahead of cocaine, marijuana and heroin.
Local and federal officials seized more than 17,000 meth labs in 2004.