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January 20, 2008 - Des Moines Register (IA)

Cutbacks Threaten Anti-Drug Campaign

By Nigel Duara, Register Staff Writer

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Proposed cuts in a key federal drug-enforcement program threaten efforts in Iowa just as the state has shown progress in the fight against methamphetamine, officials say.

The U.S. Justice Department, which filters money to local law enforcement through the Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant program, could cut 70 percent from the $4.22 million that came to Iowa this year.

Iowa politicians say they will fight the cuts, but all sides agree that the proposed cuts reflect a shift in national priorities toward the war on terrorism.

Iowa drug-control officials - the federal grant represents that largest chunk of the Iowa Office of Drug Control Policy's budget - say the cuts would stall some of their deeper investigations into narcotics suppliers and dealers and dampen the success of such agencies as the North Central Iowa Narcotics Task Force, which comprises officers and deputies from nine counties.

"If this task force goes away, Cerro Gordo County is going to worry about Cerro Gordo County," policy office director Gary Kendell said. "Without that pooled effect, they're not going to be able to do any drug enforcement other than what they run into during their regular patrol duties. It really hamstrings the effort.

"I just think you're going to see a lot less drug cases."

A 2005 law that curbed the over-the-counter sale of meth's main ingredient, coupled with mandated locks on tanks of anhydrous ammonia, another key to production, have been credited for a steep reduction in the number of drug labs in Iowa.

There are other signs of success. Nationally, the Drug Enforcement Administration reported 7,300 meth lab busts in 2006, down from 17,000 in 2004. Iowa officials last year reported a modest decline in drug-related prison convictions and a drop in overall meth-related arrests.

Still, they say, the highly addictive stimulant is more available than ever as Mexican drug trafficking rings step into the void.

In Midwestern states such as Iowa, "Mexican criminal groups have gained control over most distribution of the drug," a report from the Justice Department concluded in September.

As a result, the number of Iowans who sought treatment for meth abuse hit a 15-year high in 2006, and "reducing the homemade supply of meth has not curbed Iowans' appetite," Kendell told lawmakers last year, when he bemoaned dwindling financial support from Washington, D.C.

Cerro Gordo County Sheriff Kevin Pals acknowledged that further federal cuts would make broad investigations more difficult. He said Iowans must then decide which front of the drug war - treatment or enforcement - they want to fight.

"Education wants more money, law enforcement wants more money, treatment wants more money," Pals said. "It's a cutthroat business out there."

The Byrne program, named for a rookie New York City police officer killed by drug dealers in 1998, has endured heavy criticism that includes a 2005 report from the U.S. Office of Management and Budget that said it lacked planning, specific goals and solid management.

Forty percent of Byrne money, $520 million this year, goes to local law enforcement like the North-Central task force; 60 percent goes to states. The result is inefficiency and a lack of oversight, according to the report.

About $500 million was cut - and later replaced - in 2003. Iowa lost about $2 million from a round of cuts two years later. Next year's cut is set at $170 million.

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, objected to the conclusions of the report, which his aides said was "disproportionately focused" on the federal side of the program and ignored how the grants were used at the state and local levels.

"I think the federal government has an interest in fighting crime in local communities," Harkin spokeswoman Jennifer Mullin said. "This is a shared priority. We don't expect for the state budget to be able to bear the entire cost of these programs."

Harkin would try to amend the spending bill in February or March to restore any cuts that President Bush signs into law, Mullin said.

U.S. Sen Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican who has been critical of the government's effort on meth enforcement, has publicly endorsed the grant program. Iowa Gov. Chet Culver wants to set aside $1.4 million in state money to soften the blow from any cuts.

Meanwhile, law officers across the country have mobilized to fight. Indiana's chief drug-enforcement officer said investigations will suffer and officials would be forced to compete for private grants to keep up the effort, which includes child-abuse investigations in San Antonio, digital mapping equipment for police cars in Houston, and gang-resistance education in Georgia.

An August survey by the National Association of Counties named meth the No. 1 drug problem among 47 percent of county sheriffs surveyed.

The Bush administration and some national organizations that oppose the drug war support the Byrne cuts.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance in Washington, D.C., points to the case of Thomas R. Coleman, an undercover officer in Amarillo, Texas, who was part of a Byrne-financed cocaine sting that led to the arrests of 46 people, 39 of them black.

Coleman claimed he bought drugs from the defendants, but he worked alone and used no audio or video surveillance. No drugs or money were seized.

The Department of Justice and the Texas attorney general's office launched investigations. Most of the accused were pardoned and Coleman was convicted of perjury in 2005.

Nadelmann said "you'd be hard-pressed to find" evidence that the Byrne program "is the best way to spend that money."

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