WASHINGTON -- In an apparent response to congressional charges that it was ignoring methamphetamine abuse, three high-level Bush administration officials came to a Tennessee drug court Thursday to offer "innovative solutions" to combat a problem that has spread rapidly across the United States.
"The scourge of methamphetamine demands unconventional thinking and innovative solutions to fight the devastation it leaves behind," said Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales. "I have directed U.S. attorneys to make prosecution of methamphetamine-related crimes a top priority and seek the harshest penalties."
Gonzales was joined in Nashville, Tenn., by the director of the White House Office of Drug Control Policy, John Walters, and Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt to announce $1 million for anti-meth ads, $16.2 million over three years for treatment grants and a new Web site, www.MethResources.gov, which offers information about the drug.
But members of Congress, who have complained that their constituents are demanding more action against users of the drug, said the modest measures announced Thursday were far too little and possibly too late.
Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., who chairs a House Government Reform subcommittee that authorizes legislation involving drug control efforts, has held repeated hearings criticizing the administration for not taking strong enough measures to fight meth.
"We're looking for a scream, not a peep," he said. "This proposal, unfortunately doesn't have anything new in it. At my last hearing they waved a report with a list of recommendations, and this was all in it."
Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., a clinical psychologist who worked in drug treatment programs before his election to Congress, said he was happy to see the administration break its focus on marijuana. "On the rhetoric front, over the last four to five years, they have said very little about meth," he said.
The administration has repeatedly put forward statistics showing that the numbers of drug lab busts, high school students using the drug, and interdictions of drugs that can be used to make meth were all on the decline. Walters said last month that there was no meth epidemic, though he did note Thursday that the drug poses "unique" problems. .
But Baird said the change of rhetoric would offer little comfort to either local law enforcement or treatment programs, whose federal aid have been cut by hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
This year, the administration wanted to cut more than $1 billion from assistance to local police forces, but bipartisan votes restored $360 million.
"You have to ask how they can take credit" for the reduced use of meth among high-school students "when they've proposed cutting those very programs," Baird said.
Souder lambasted the proposal to shift $1 million into anti-meth ads as a meaningless token. "A million is nothing," he said. "It might (cover) Kansas, Nebraska and maybe Kentucky, but the House already passed $25 million for meth in the upcoming appropriations bill."
Rawson said Thursday's event appeared to be a response to congressional pressure. But members of Congress were apparently not informed about it; California Rep. Ken Calvert, one of the two Republican co-chairs of the Congressional Meth Caucus, learned about it through the news, according to his spokesman.
Calvert said the event announced only half-measures. "While this is an improvement," he said in a statement, "we still need a better national and international strategy to stop meth production, smuggling, and reduce usage."
The administration announced its support for a law to make it harder to buy large quantities of pseudoephedrine, a drug that is commonly found in over-the-counter decongestants and is a key ingredient in homemade meth. But the White House has not said that it would back legislation, cosponsored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Jim Talent, R-Mo., that would require retailers to keep products containing the chemical behind the counter.
"I am surprised and disappointed that the Bush administration did not endorse one of the most effective tools in the battle against meth," Feinstein said,
"Their plan is inadequate because it doesn't go far enough to restrict products containing pseudoephedrine," Talent said.
A similar law in Iowa has contributed to a steep decline in the number of meth labs. In July, the state found only nine labs, compared to 92 in the same period the year before.