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Chicago Tribune (MCT)
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A common fear is sweeping through the Midwest's drug-enforcement community: that methamphetamine, the narcotic scourge that has wounded middle America as no drug ever before, is about to surge again because of extreme federal slashes in police funding.
In Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas and Nebraska, the story is the same. Just as statistics show that anti-meth task forces may be beginning to gain an upper hand on those who manufacture, deal and use the highly addictive and destructive drug, the source of the majority of these states' drug-enforcement funding is slated to disappear overnight.
"It couldn't come at a worse time," said Terry Lemming, the statewide drug-enforcement coordinator for the Illinois State Police. "After all the success we've started to have, this could set the Midwest back a good 20 years in our fight against this drug."
President Bush, whose administration has long expressed the opinion that federal dollars should not be the primary means of funding state and local law enforcement, has dramatically cut funding in the 2009 budget for the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant, the primary program used to finance drug enforcement in nearly every state. The proposed cut would trim $170 million, virtually the entire Byrne program for drug enforcement.
Although Congress has signaled it will fight to restore funding to the drug-enforcement program, those on both sides of the political aisle have acknowledged they very likely could fail; the war on terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they say, have trumped the nation's war on drugs at home. Other sources of funding include money from state and local government, but it is often a smaller percentage of the total.
The ramifications for the ongoing battle against methamphetamine in the Midwest could be enormous:
In Iowa, where Mexican drug cartels have gained control over the bulk of meth distribution, officials say they face losing nearly three-quarters of their drug-enforcement budget.
In Illinois, where meth continues to make inroads into rural communities, addicting youth and adults alike, drug-enforcement officials say they would have to eliminate more than half of the state's meth-fighting task forces.
In Missouri, where a startling 20 percent of the nation's meth arrests are made, officials grimly predict they will have to start laying off a significant number of their already overwhelmed drug-enforcement officers.
"I don't think anyone is yet fully appreciating what this is going to mean for the rates of people getting addicted to this drug as well as to overall public safety," said Gary Kendall, director of the Iowa Office of Drug Control Policy.
State legislatures in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri are trying to replace the lost federal funds with money from state coffers, but drug-enforcement officials worry that will prove difficult or impossible during the current economic downturn.
"We're preparing for the worst," Lemming said. "And if that comes to pass, it will be devastating."
Indeed, methamphetamine statistics show how much is at stake. In Illinois, for example, law-enforcement officials say they have been so successful that they halved the number of labs operating from 2003 to 2007. Lemming said that is the result of nearly two decades of building up 23 multicounty task forces that specialize _ quite successfully _ in fighting meth.
He cited a 2005 study by the Illinois Criminal Justice Authority that showed in areas where anti-drug task forces were at work, violent crime had been significantly reduced.
"If we cannot at least keep the current level of federal funding, we will have to dissolve 12 of our 23 task forces," Lemming said. "The people of Illinois will see a dramatic change in violence and drug use as a result."
Iowa officials cite the same worries about closing the lion's share of their anti-meth task forces. But they have other fears too. Since the state has been so successful at cutting down in-state meth productions — lab busts have plummeted from more than 1,300 in 2004 to less than 200 last year, an indication their numbers are drastically down — the state has seen an influx of meth from drug cartels.
"First we zoned in on the labs, and the numbers show how well we did," said Kendall. "Now we are poised to really start having a real impact on the Mexican drug cartels that are now bringing in the meth. But if we have to eliminate more than half of our task forces, we won't stand a chance at that."
Like officials in virtually every state in the Midwest, Kendall said, local police and sheriff's departments have neither the staff, resources nor training to effectively fight the war on meth.
"Without the work of our task forces, Missouri could find itself in the position where everything that's been done in the last 5 to 10 years is virtually undone," said Capt. Tim Forney, the operating chief for the Northeast Missouri Narcotics Task Force.
Forney said that federal funds for task forces like his have been decreasing for the past several years. In the past two years, he said, his task force had more than $70,000 in funding cuts and had to lay off one officer.
"Less personnel means less enforcement," he said.
Missouri will certainly feel the federal slashes as much as any state in the Midwest. Because one-fifth of the nation's meth arrests occur in the state, it has been heavily funded by the Byrne assistance grant, a program named for a New York City police officer killed by drug dealers in 1988. Missouri currently gets about $9 million from the federal fund.
"In Missouri, we especially understand what's at stake," said Forney, noting that the state still had about 1,200 meth lab busts in 2007.
Liz Rehmer, a Missouri mother whose son began using meth in his early 20s and is now in prison for drug-related offenses, has watched the debate over Byrne funding with shock. She lives in a county where the anti-meth task force is 100 percent funded by Byrne money, and she fears what will result from the dismantling of such law-enforcement efforts.
"The Midwest will see more and more addicts, more and more children in foster care, and the prisons will be full to the point that they are bursting," she said. "Crime will go up. The number of addicts will be shocking. It won't even take five years for it to be a full-blown epidemic."
So many states are worried about the slashes to federal funding that drug-enforcement officials representing 45 states traveled last week to Washington to lobby Congress to restore Byrne funding. Lemming said the sense was of bipartisan support among members of Congress, but that financial realities during this time of war might prevent the money from being appropriated.
"What I fear is that we're about to dismantle everything we've been doing for a decade to fight meth in the Midwest," he said. "I think citizens and politicians will very quickly discover what a disaster that is for drug use rates and public safety, and then we'll want to go back to what we were doing.
"But if we tear down the infrastructure that we've spent all this time building, it will be very difficult to restore a year or two from now. We may not be able to fix what we've broken."
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