Stung by months of criticism that it wasn't paying sufficient attention to what tabloid-style press reports and hyperventilating politicians call the "methamphetamine epidemic," the Bush administration late last week responded with its own meth initiative. But despite the presence of three cabinet level officials to publicly kick off the new campaign, the administration's initiative is so limited that it has failed to quiet the critics on the right while arousing scorn and dismay from harm reductionists and drug reformers.
As the resort to home methamphetamine manufacture spreads East -- while official statistics show meth use flat nationwide over the past few years, home labs have indeed proliferated -- concern about the drug has only grown more intense on Capitol Hill. Even conservative Republicans have taken to criticizing the Office of National Drug Control Policy and its head, drug czar John Walters, for their lack of emphasis on meth. Some have even gone so far as to accuse Walters and the White House of concentrating too much on marijuana -- amazing words indeed to hear from the likes of Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley.
The congressional ire toward Walters over methamphetamine is inextricably tied to a grand battle being waged over proposed budget cuts in law enforcement programs dear to congressional drug warriors. The Bush budget zeroes out the $600 million a year Justice Assistance Grants program, which helps funds multi-jurisdictional drug task forces, and slashes the budget of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program (HIDTA), a program originally aimed at stopping smuggling across US borders but which has become a pork barrel, with HIDTA's operating in such "high intensity" drug trafficking areas as central South Dakota. The HIDTA funds also essentially pay for even more multi-jurisdictional drug task forces.
For staunch congressional drug fighters like Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), the "methamphetamine epidemic" has become a heavy stick with which he can pound Walters and the administration over the proposed budget cuts. "This committee is desperately trying to say 'Lead!' You're the executive branch," Souder said at a July subcommittee hearing. The White House must acknowledge that meth is "the most dangerous drug in America," he demanded.
While Walters and ONDCP had downplayed paying any special attention to methamphetamine as recently as last month, they were clearly feeling the pressure. Last Thursday, the administration responded, wheeling out Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt, and drug czar Walters to detail the federal government's "comprehensive, balanced approach to the methamphetamine challenge."
"The methamphetamine challenge has touched communities across this nation differently, but its devastating consequences are borne by all Americans," said Walters. "Through the National Drug Control Strategy and the National Synthetic Drugs Action Plan, the Federal government has implemented a balanced approach to fighting meth. Together with our state and local partners, we are aggressively pushing back against the drug and our collaborative efforts are generating significant progress in several critical areas."
"The scourge of methamphetamine demands unconventional thinking and innovative solutions to fight the devastation it leaves behind," added Gonzales. "Over the past 10 years, the Justice Department has more than quadrupled the number of methamphetamine cases filed nationwide, and the new initiatives announced today by the administration will increase our efforts to target all aspects of the meth problem. By using expertise from across the federal government in one comprehensive plan, and by working with state and local officials, we will continue to prove that the methamphetamine problem can be beaten and lives can be saved."
But while Walters and Gonzales could tout the successes of the past, the new initiative was both paltry and conventional. HHS Secretary Leavitt announced $16 million in drug treatment grants in seven states over the next three years -- the single largest expenditure announced by the Bush administration trio. Walters also announced the administration's support for limits on over-the-counter cold and allergy remedies containing pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in a popular meth-cooking recipe, but the bill proposing to do that, the Combat Meth Act, was already moving under its own momentum. The DEA will also initiate a Federal Clandestine Lab Container Program next year, under which meth lab debris will be transported by "trained law enforcement personnel" to centralized containers that meet hazardous waste standards, Walters said. And they created a web site, www.MethResources.gov.
That didn't cut it with congressional drug fighters. "If this is a cohesive national policy, it is embarrassing," said Rep. Souder, who has used his position as chairman of the House subcommittee that handles national drug policy to consistently clamor for ever tougher anti-drug measures. He accused the administration of engaging in a public relations ploy.
The meth proposals announced last Thursday leave administration officials with "egg on their face," said Sen. Grassley in an interview with the Gannett Newspapers. Grassley, who cosponsored the Combat Meth Act, vowed to "jack up the pressure through more hearings" if Walters and the White House didn't get tougher on meth.
In an August 1 letter co-signed by Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE), Grassley actually broke with official US drug war orthodoxy by arguing that lowering drug use levels was not the only thing that mattered as he chided the drug czar over his obsession with marijuana. "Marijuana is a much more popular drug in terms of the number of people who use it," Grassley wrote. "However, methamphetamine causes much more destruction in a much shorter period of time than marijuana. We believe that reducing drug use is not just about reducing the number of users of a drug, but reducing the overall harm to society caused by the drug." Sen. Charles Grassley, harm reductionist?
The National Association of Counties, which contributed mightily to the uproar over meth and the battle over drug enforcement spending with its recent widely-cited survey of sheriffs, 58% of whom said meth was their worst drug problem, was a bit more charitable than the congressional drug fighters. The organization was "pleased" to see last Thursday's announcement, which it called "a good first step," but it added that "more action is needed to address this national problem." The administration should establish a task force of federal, state, and local officials to address the problem, the group said in a press release. Oh, the group also "hopes" the administration will fully fund the drug task force programs it cut in its budget proposal.
If Walters and company were getting slagged by the drug fighters, they were getting no solace from the other side of the spectrum, either. "The administration initiative is an insult to everyone who works around substance abuse issues, from treatment providers to law enforcement," said Luciano Colonna, head of the Harm Reduction Project, the organization that just finished hosting last weekend's First National Conference on Methamphetamine, HIV, and Hepatitis C in Salt Lake City (see related story this issue). "The amounts of money they are talking about for treatment and research are piddling. Does Walters never discuss anything with anybody? Does he understand that if we can get people off meth, we can reduce demand?" he asked. "The amount of money they need is about a hundred times what Walters is offering, and 80% of that needs to go to treatment," Colonna said.
"If you break it down, there's nothing there," scoffed Allen Clear, head of the Harm Reduction Coalition. "They're talking about putting a little treatment money into seven states, but what about the other 43? It's completely inadequate," he said. "Gonzalez said they need a comprehensive, innovative response, but of course they left out harm reduction. And if they were really interested in innovative responses, they would have shown up at the conference, but they didn't have the gumption."
As for all the flak Walters and the administration were getting from the congressional drug warriors, Clear was bemused. "You have folks like Souder accusing them of being soft on drugs," he said. "They've never been soft on anything. This just shows how far to the right, how extremist, these people are."
"They want to proceed with business as usual and have law enforcement go after people -- and they're not even giving money to law enforcement," Colonna noted. "Law enforcement is tired of being the fallback strategy. We have a problem and we dump in the lap of the police and then we get mad at the police, but they're not making the laws."
"The Bush administration has been so obsessed with marijuana that they are seen as being AWOL on the meth front," said Drug Policy Alliance executive director Ethan Nadelmann. "That reflects their obsession with marijuana. For this drug czar, policy has almost nothing to do with the real consequences of drug use but is instead about pursuing ulterior political ends," he told DRCNet. "This is also caught up in the broader issue of federal funding for the task forces. The administration surprised everybody by proposing to eliminate those funds. The hype about meth is providing the justification for asking for more money," he said.
"Also, I'm fairly ambivalent about the feds getting involved,� said Nadelmann. "They tend to do more harm than good. Getting them involved in meth is not necessarily a good thing. The risk, though, is that we'll get members of Congress proposing federal versions of some of the dumber laws that have been enacted at the state level."
With Congress and the administration fighting over who is "tougher" on meth, the prognosis for a progressive response to methamphetamine use and abuse is grim. That is unlikely to change, said Colonna, without some innovative thinking from activists. "We will not be able to move forward on this until someone comes up with some decent framing around the issue," he said. "We activists are not going to create a civil rights movement to change the drug laws. Instead, I think the real impetus from change is going to have to come from the families of drug users. There is nothing stronger than hearing the parents of an overdose victim speak. Those are preventable deaths. So are the deaths of those people who get AIDS from dirty needles. As Donald Grove once noted, how much science do you need to show that HIV does not live in a sterile syringe?"