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Cabinet Officials Tout Efforts to Fight 'Meth'


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

The Bush administration has a new message about methamphetamines. Here's White House drug czar John Walters speaking yesterday in Nashville.

Mr. JOHN WALTERS (White House Drug Czar): Our urgent responsibility is to stop the growth of meth use and put it into decline.

INSKEEP: And here's Attorney General Alberto Gonzales speaking at the same gathering.

Mr. ALBERTO GONZALES (Attorney General): We do understand that this is a serious problem, and we're here to express our very firm commitment to deal with this issue.

INSKEEP: And finally, here's Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, also in Nashville.

Secretary MIKE LEAVITT (Department of Health and Human Services): It's got to stop, and that is the reason that the three of us are here and the reason you are here and the reason that President Bush has been--is so committed to using resources across the federal government to make certain that this issue is addressed.

INSKEEP: The new meth mantra follows weeks of criticism from congressional Republicans and county officials that the administration is not doing enough about methamphetamine abuse. NPR's Howard Berkes is also in Nashville.

HOWARD BERKES reporting:

Before the speeches and the commitments and the promises, the drug czar, the attorney general and the Health and Human Services secretary walked among drug addicts, some in prison stripes, in the nation's only drug court with residential treatment. Judge Seth Norman showed his visitors a tote board, naming the addicts and their treatment program jobs.

Judge SETH NORMAN: They know what their job assignment is, and they know what they're supposed to do. And everybody has a job. That's all there is to it. If you don't work, you leave.

BERKES: Treatment is an alternative to jail. And when the three Cabinet officials spoke later, graduates of the program filled about three dozen seats in a warehouse-sized building with metal walls. A couple of hundred other people were there, too, as Judge Norman drove the point home.

Judge NORMAN: I want you to understand that there are people in Washington who help this program. We could not get along without the help of the federal government.

BERKES: And in case the point wasn't clear, White House drug policy director John Walters provided this reinforcement exactly two minutes later.

Mr. WALTERS: We know all too well that what the federal government does best when it does its work best is to give its support to people in communities like this one who really do the work of preventing and treating and making our communities safer in the area of substance abuse.

BERKES: The visit seemed designed to show that the administration is fighting the wars on drugs and especially methamphetamines. The Cabinet officials revealed what they called new programs and funding aimed at prevention treatment and enforcement and they trumpeted existing efforts. Larry Naake directs the National Association of Counties and he's happy with some of what was said.

Mr. LARRY NAAKE (Director, National Association of Counties): What we've been looking for is a greater awareness of the meth problem. So from that point of view, we were pleased that three top people in the administration all now have recognized that this is a serious problem. You know, this has been a turnaround on their part and I think a positive one.

BERKES: But Naake says the new programs appear to be part of existing proposals and funding requests. He's also disappointed that the Cabinet officials did not cancel proposed budget cuts to programs that help police and county sheriffs fight meth. Some of that money is targeted for the war on terror, prompting this from Sheriff Jackie Matheny of Warren County, Tennessee.

Sheriff JACKIE MATHENY (Warren County, Tennessee): We know that our country's at war and there's many things going on, but we have a war here in our community. And we're fighting methamphetamine and we need every bit of help we can get, because this thing is unbelievable. It has grown like wildfire in our communities and it's going to destroy them if we don't do something.

BERKES: If the Cabinet-level officials had visited Warren County, they would have heard about 55 meth lab busts so far this year, each costing five to $10,000 to address. That's money, Matheny says, from federal grants the administration wants to terminate, but visiting Warren County wouldn't deliver the message the White House wants to send.

Howard Berkes, NPR News, Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.