Good news in the fight against meth abuse came on two fronts Monday, with reports showing a major drop in methamphetamine lab seizures nationwide and a similar decline in the spread of the drug into the workplace.
Local law enforcement officials say there is still a strong appetite for the highly addictive drug and warned that meth makers in Mexico and other countries are moving to fill the supply void.
The number of meth lab busts plummeted more that 30 percent last year as most states put in place laws to restrict the sale of over-the-counter cold medicines used to make meth, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s El Paso Intelligence Center.
Meanwhile, the nation’s largest drug testing company said Monday that the number of job applicants and workers who tested positive for meth plunged 31 percent over the first five months of this year.
Those figures are based on the results of more than 7 million drug tests in 2005 and about 3 million tests from January to May 2006, conducted by New Jersey-based Quest Diagnostics Inc.
White House drug policy director John Walters called the data an encouraging sign of progress.
“The practices that have been taking place in our states are working, not only on small toxic labs but also what we’re trying to do with demand,” said Walters, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Meth lab seizures fell from 17,562 in 2004 to 12,185 last year, with western and central western states like Oklahoma, Montana and Washington seeing some of the sharpest declines. Missouri, which leads the nation in the number of lab seizures, saw a 22 percent decline.
In Oregon, where lab busts fell 60 percent, the biggest reason is a state law requiring cold medicines to be placed behind pharmacy counters, said Capt. Craig Durbin, former head of the Oregon State Police’s drug enforcement section. The law has helped stop meth makers from buying large quantities of cold pills to extract pseudoephedrine, the ingredient used to cook meth with other household chemicals.
A tougher law taking effect later this year will require cold sufferers in Oregon to get a doctor’s prescription for pseudoephedrine-containing drugs.
Durbin said the demand for meth still remains high and is increasingly fed by supplies from Mexico and Canada.
“When we talk to our task forces, they’re still able to go out at a moment’s notice and purchase meth,” Durbin said. “Until we see start seeing that change, I don’t think we can say we’ve got anything close to being under control.”
Oregon is among at least 37 states with laws that restrict the sale of cold medications in an effort to starve meth manufacturers of their key ingredient. The federal Combat Meth Act, signed into law in March, will enforce similar restrictions across the country by Sept. 30.
A study last week by the Sentencing Project _ a nonprofit group that supports alternatives to prison terms for convicted drug users _ concluded that reports about meth use are exaggerated.
Citing figures that show less than 1 percent of the nation’s population uses meth, the group said meth abuse remains a “highly localized” problem compared with abuse of other drugs like cocaine.
Still, 58 percent of the nation’s counties say meth is their largest drug problem. Rural law enforcement officers are often overwhelmed by the cleanup of toxic chemicals used to make meth and welfare agencies must deal with the displaced children of meth-addicted parents.
While the drug czar praised the “robust response nationwide” for the good news, some federal lawmakers said much of the credit to state and local governments working without much national direction.
Rep. Mark Souder, chairman of the House drug policy subcommittee, said the administration has refused to make the fight against meth abuse a priority. He also criticized a White House budget proposal to slash federal spending for state and local law enforcement to fight meth.
“Efforts to continue to downplay the threat, after working to cut funding for anti-meth efforts, are only making those who fight the meth epidemic daily more angry at this administration,” said Souder, R-Ind.
Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., agreed that the administration’s budget requests this year were “fundamentally inadequate,” but he said it is now “catching up in other respects and doing better.”
In Jefferson County, Mo., a rural area on the fringes of suburban St. Louis, Sheriff Glenn Boyer said success in busting meth labs is directly related to federal grant money.
“We live and die by the grants, especially in the rural areas,” Boyer said. “They don’t have the resources that you would have in a major city where you have a huge tax base.”
Earlier this month, the White House drug policy office set a goal to cut meth use by 15 percent by 2009 and increase seizures of meth labs by 25 percent. A priority is stemming the flow of meth from superlabs in Mexico, which supply about 80 percent of the drug to the United States.
On the Net:
White House Office of National Drug Control Policy: http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/
Quest Diagnostics Inc.: http://www.questdiagnostics.com/
Drug Enforcement Administration El Paso Intelligence Center: http://www.dea.gov/programs/epic.htm
© 2006 The Associated Press