Caucus Fights for Meth Lab Policy, Task Forces

More than 100 representatives of the House are members of the Meth Caucus. The bipartisan caucus focuses on efforts to crack down on methamphetamine labs in rural America.

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ANDREA SEABROOK reporting:

I'm Andrea Seabrook at the Capitol. The Meth Caucus has more than 100 members, split just about evenly between the parties. Because of that, it wields increasing power. Just last week during debate on the tight budgets of next year's departments of Transportation, Treasury and others, Indiana Republican Mark Souder passionately expressed the rising anxiety that many in Congress feel.

Representative MARK SOUDER (Republican, Indiana): Quite frankly, we have a meth crisis in America that is knocking at the doors of homes across this country, and it's about to steamroll all of us, and the question is: Are we going to attack this before it runs us over, are we going to attack it aggressively, or are we going to rue the day and spend hundreds of millions trying to address it after it's moved into our suburbs and cities just as crack cocaine did and then we spent 10 or 15 years fighting it? We've had the warnings. It's moving into rural areas, it's moving into suburban areas, it's moving in some urban areas, and this is a freight train coming and we need to get at the front end of it.

SEABROOK: The Meth Caucus is trying to educate fellow lawmakers about what they say is a scourge. It started on the West Coast in the '70s, but has steadily crept East. Rural police departments are plagued by hidden mom-and-pop meth labs, and there is increasing traffic across the southern border from so-called super labs in Mexico. Several lawmakers founded the Meth Caucus in the late '90s and count among their recent wins pushing the Office of National Drug Control Policy, or ONDCP, to come up with a national plan to fight meth. In turn, the ONDCP is working to block the sale of chemicals used to make meth.

Mr. HANI DURZY (eBay): Three areas that we made some changes were around three particular types of precursors: red phosphorus, iodine and sassafras oil or camphor oil.

SEABROOK: That's Hani Durzy of eBay, the online auction site. EBay is working with federal drug control authorities and has already banned the sale of red phosphorus or red P on the site. Durzy says eBay is also regulating the sale of other chemical precursors of meth, like iodine.

Mr. DURZY: We did create a pop-up message for sellers who try to list those items that basically says, `Be advised that federal law provides severe civil and criminal penalties for the illegal distribution and illegal use of sassafras oil and camphor oils.'

SEABROOK: But just about everyone in the Congressional Meth Caucus, Republicans and Democrats alike, say there is much work to do. Though they have the ear of the ONDCP, many feel the White House hasn't yet woken up to the enormous problem of meth use in America. For example, Washington Democrat Rick Larsen says President Bush's budget proposals continue to slash federal money that is aiding the fight against meth in local communities.

Representative RICK LARSEN (Democrat, Washington): The biggest cut and the most disastrous cut has been to the Byrne Memorial grants.

SEABROOK: Byrne grants are named after a police officer murdered during a drug stakeout. They're used to fund regional drug task forces. Larsen is one of the leaders of the Meth Caucus and says he worked last year to get Byrne grants funded at $650 million.

Rep. LARSEN: The president this year proposed zero dollars for Byrne grants. The House of Representatives funded it at about $350 million.

SEABROOK: The program was only saved because of the Meth Caucus. They worked behind the scenes to get Republican leaders to put money back in, and even then Byrne Grant money was cut almost in half. In Washington state alone, says Larsen, that could mean nine drug task forces will be shut down.

So far the Meth Caucus has focused on educating its colleagues and fighting to keep funding, but now the caucus is getting more ambitious. Many lawmakers would like to see retail stores and pharmacies more closely control the sale of Sudafed and other cold medicines that contain a chemical used to make meth. They're working on a package of new laws they aim to introduce later this year. Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.

RENEE MONTAGNE (Host): This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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