RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Marijuana is the nation's biggest drug problem, according to federal policy, but a new survey of county officials puts methamphetamines at the top of the list. It indicates the nation's meth epidemic is growing and it's breaking up families. Some members of Congress are so alarmed they've formed a meth caucus. We have two reports. First, NPR's Howard Berkes.

HOWARD BERKES reporting:

This survey produced a blizzard of numbers, with 17 questions posed to 800 county sheriffs and social workers in 45 states. To make sense of that, it helps to get in a car...

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BERKES: ...and get on the road...

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BERKES: ...to a place like Moffat County in the far northwestern corner of Colorado, where it's 90 miles from the county line to the county seat. That's 90 miles of sagebrush flats and juniper hills, ending at the county sheriff's office, where Annette Gianinetti has been tracking a meth epidemic.

Ms. ANNETTE GIANINETTI (Sheriff's Office Representative, Meth Task Force): Meth is everywhere we look. It's in everything that we have. It's the root of so many economic and social problems at this point.

BERKES: Gianinetti represents the sheriff's office on a county meth task force. She can see the prevalence of meth by looking at the list of inmates on the tote board at the county jail.

Ms. GIANINETTI: OK, more than 60 inmates in jail, and out of the inmates we've got in jail, I see more than 50 percent of our capacity today are in on meth-related charges. Most of that 50 percent that are in here have been in here more than five times in the last two years.

BERKES: This is in a rural county, slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut, with just 13,000 people. In fact, the biggest share of meth inmates is in counties with the smallest populations, according to the new survey from the National Association of Counties.

Ms. GIANINETTI: It's presented huge challenges in budgets alone, because after meth abuse, most people start having problems with their teeth because it eats down the finish on the enamel, so we need to take them to the dentist. Our medical bills and our dental bills have skyrocketed.

BERKES: Meth is also blamed for more assaults on deputies at county jails and more assaults in general, as well as more burglaries, robberies and domestic violence. Meth-related arrests are still on the rise, but at a slower pace. Impacts on children are growing. Beverly Counts directs the child welfare program in Moffat County.

Ms. BEVERLY COUNTS (Director, Child Welfare Program): We see really bone-grinding neglect, because you have a period of euphoria and you're not a very good parent when you're doing that. It's hard to keep a job. It's hard to furnish the things that children need and be sure that they get to school, that they had their breakfast. It makes things really difficult for parents to do what they need to do in order for that child to thrive.

BERKES: Counts has seen her meth-related case load almost double in the last year, from 22 to 43 children removed from homes. They stay out of their homes longer, Counts says, because meth recovery is especially difficult. That makes it less likely children will return to their parents, according to most of the child welfare officials surveyed. Forty percent say meth put more kids in foster care in the last year. Bill Hansell is the president-elect of the National Association of Counties.

Mr. BILL HANSELL (National Association of Counties): We've got something that's right on our laps that is absolutely the worst kind of drug that the nation has ever seen, and to not address it now, it will be a huge mistake.

BERKES: Hansell criticizes the Bush administration for proposing cuts in local drug enforcement programs and for listing marijuana as the biggest drug problem. That draws this response from David Murray, an analyst at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Mr. DAVID MURRAY (Office of National Drug Control Policy): Marijuana still stands out as the most widely abused and problematic drug that we confront on a regular basis, particularly for young people. If you can address early marijuana use, that is an effective way of heading off and preventing subsequent movement into other drug use. Rarely do people, as young people, begin their drug using career by going out and consuming methamphetamine or producing it.

BERKES: Congress is playing referee. It's already restored some local drug enforcement funding, and now has a bipartisan Meth Caucus trying to do more. Howard Berkes, NPR News.

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