Federal Cuts May Hamper Efforts to Close Meth Labs in Tenn.

In Tennessee, proposed federal cuts in some areas of drug enforcement may affect the ability of authorities to seize methamphetamine — or meth — labs in rural communities. In 2004, Tennessee ranked second nationwide in the number of meth labs seized. From member station WUOT in Knoxville, Matt Shafer Powell reports.

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President Bush has proposed increasing drug enforcement spending by 2 percent, but some programs could see dramatic cuts. In the state of Tennessee, authorities count on that money to help pay for the seizures of methamphetamine labs. Last year Tennessee ranked second nationwide in the number of meth labs seized. Matt Shafer Powell reports from member station WUOT in Knoxville.

MATT SHAFER POWELL reporting:

In Cocke County, just outside of Newport, Tennessee, Newport Police Chief Maurice Shults rumbles down a country road barely wide enough for his car. He slows down next to a collection of run-down shacks, the site of Cocke County's first meth lab seizure.

Chief MAURICE SHULTS (Newport Police): Right down in there. In that black building is where the actual lab was. There was blasting caps there. There was bottles of ether sitting there open.

POWELL: Since then, police in Newport in Cocke County have busted two more labs. That may pale in comparison to some counties to the West, but like a storm front, meth has been moving eastward toward Cocke County. Shults knows there will be more. Back at his office, he opens a large black duffel, a bag to take with him when he gets a meth lab call.

(Soundbite of a zipper)

Chief SHULTS: What you see here is just protective clothing, the booties and the suits. These thicker suits, the type TMSLs, are the ones we would be wearing. And then in the...

POWELL: In Newport, a town of about 7,200, money for drug enforcement is scarce, so the bag, the clothes, the training it takes to be certified to enter a meth lab, all of it's provided by a program called HIDTA, the High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program. HIDTA coordinates federal, state and local drug war efforts in several regions around the country. Last year, the Appalachia HIDTA contributed $6 million in money and resources to help fight the drug war in parts of Tennessee, West Virginia and Kentucky. Recently an increasing amount of that money has gone to local police to help pay for the equipment, training and overtime required to seize domestic meth labs. But not everyone thinks that's what HIDTA should be doing. John Horton(ph) is with the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy. That's the office that currently oversees HIDTA.

Mr. JOHN HORTON (Office of National Drug Control Policy): It's most important for the HIDTA program to go after what we could call the head of the snake, the very top of the drug trafficking organizations. The HIDTA program is not meant to and has never been meant to go after either low-level distribution or even medium-level.

POWELL: The Bush administration has suggested that HIDTA undergo a massive restructure. The current budget proposal suggests that funding for HIDTA be cut from $227 million to $100 million.

Mr. TOM GORMAN (National HIDTA Directors Association): It just absolutely makes no sense at all. Like, I was aghast when I heard this. It just absolutely shocked everybody.

POWELL: Tom Gorman is the head of the National HIDTA Directors Association, an organization created specifically to fight the proposed changes. Gorman says HIDTA's critics are missing the point.

Mr. GORMAN: It started out as five areas designated. Other people wanted their areas designated because the program works so well. So it's expanded because of its success.

POWELL: Back in Newport, Tennessee, Police Chief Maurice Shults says he'll continue the fight against meth, even if his HIDTA funding goes away, but it won't be easy.

Chief SHULTS: It's a devastating blow if we lose these funds. There's no way that we'll be able to keep people trained. You know, the government here can't afford to up our taxes.

POWELL: Recent laws passed in Tennessee make it more difficult for local meth makers to get the ingredients they need, but meth is highly addictive, and Shults says the drug won't simply disappear, nor will the expense involved in fighting it.

For NPR News, I'm Matt Shafer Powell.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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