Chattanooga Times Free Press - Lee Pitts
WASHINGTON — Members of Tennessee’s congressional delegation said they will work to protect federal money to fight methamphetamine crime despite budget cuts brought on by Hurricane Katrina reconstruction costs.
"Our Katrina responsibility should not cannibalize funding for other infrastructure improvement," said U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said his concern about the power of meth addiction has increased.
"We can’t fix the problem from Washington, but we can put the right tools in the hands of sheriffs, district attorneys and teachers," Sen. Alexander said.
Rep. Wamp said he expects the House to spend two days this month debating meth legislation.
Among the bills representatives will consider are those that would restrict access to chemicals used to make meth; strengthen penalties for meth production, distribution and trafficking; and improve environmental oversight of toxic byproducts created during meth manufacturing.
Rep. Wamp said he has cosponsored a bill with U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., that would provide services to foster children removed from homes where meth is made or used.
"Children are the innocent victims of meth," Rep. Wamp said. "There is no national response now. It is just a scattered safety net of programs."
Tennessee ranks second in the nation in the number of meth laboratory seizures, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
One program lawmakers said has helped in the meth fight is the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grant.
The grants, initiated in 1988, provide money for Tennessee’s 26 Judicial Drug Task Forces, Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn., said. The money helps law enforcement officials track, shut down and clean up meth labs.
The Bush administration’s budget for fiscal 2006 would eliminate that program.
However, the Senate version of the budget approved $900 million for the grant, and the House’s 2006 budget earmarked $366 million. Lawmakers will work this fall to reconcile the grant’s funding levels, Rep. Davis said.
"When you cut the Byrne grant you are literally cutting the throats of small, rural counties trying to fight meth," he said.
Billy Cook, director of the drug task force in Coffee County, said salaries for his office would not be paid without the Byrne grant.
"If the Byrne grant goes away then we go away," he said. "And we are the front-line defense in the meth battle."
Mr. Cook said his unit ranks third in lab seizures in the state this year with 52. Through August, task forces covering 41 counties in South Tennessee and East Tennessee have discovered 760 labs, he said.
Rep. Wamp said Tennessee has been a leading state in fighting meth for years. It is an issue that crosses party lines, he said.
Earlier this year, Gov. Phil Bredesen signed into law a bill moving pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in meth, behind pharmacy counters.
Rep. Davis said matching federal laws are needed.
"People can still drive across state lines and pick up the drugs they need," he said.
The U.S. Senate included an anti-meth provision in an appropriations bill passed in September. The amendment restricts the sale nationwide of over-thecounter cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said the next step is to make sure the amendment is included when the House and the Senate work out a compromise between their appropriations bills.
The entire Tennessee delegation signed a Sept. 22 letter urging House and Senate leaders to include the amendment in the final version of the Commerce, Justice and Science funding bill.
Rep. Davis said the meth battle cannot be tossed aside in the face of Katrina’s high price tag.
"The disaster of the drug culture has to be covered just like natural disasters," Rep. Davis said.