Battling meth makers not a big issue for presidential candidate

Sunday, October 10, 2004

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Missouri Sen. Kit Bond, a Republican whose state ranks No. 1 in busts of makeshift methamphetamine labs, calls peddlers of the highly addictive drug "domestic terrorists."

Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa says voters in Midwestern presidential battlegrounds are more likely to encounter a meth maker than an operative for al-Qaida.

But while the federal government spends millions to boost state and local law enforcement efforts against the made-from-scratch stimulant -- variously known as crank, meth or ice -- methamphetamine has scarcely been mentioned by the presidential candidates.

At the state level, however, candidates stress their commitment to fighting meth.

Police are challenged daily by the audacity of the drug's makers and their toxic trails of waste byproducts. Missouri shut down 2,860 meth labs last year, more than any other state. Authorities say they are on track to exceed that total this year.

As a political issue, the statistic cuts two ways: It's encouraging that thousands of labs are being busted but frustrating that so many keep popping up.

Meth hasn't been mentioned much in recent presidential campaign speeches, despite the presumed advantage of localizing appeals to audiences in Missouri, Iowa and other Midwestern electoral battlegrounds.

President Bush's recent Missouri bus tour took him through half a dozen mostly rural Missouri counties where more than 70 meth labs have been busted this year. White House transcripts reviewed by The Associated Press show Bush never referred to meth during that Missouri tour.

Bond said he has "gotten right in the middle of the issue," including securing more than $13 million in federal money for local cops to fight meth. It pays off politically. More than 70 sheriffs, including several Democrats, have endorsed Bond over Democratic challenger Nancy Farmer.

Bond said he doesn't recall ever talking to Bush about meth. But the senator said meth hasn't broken through as a coast-to-coast issue, although it has been called an epidemic by police in locales as diverse as southern California and the Ozarks.

Scott Burns, Bush's deputy drug czar, acknowledged as much during congressional testimony last February. He said there was a "lack of national uniformity" to the meth problem.

Burns said the Bush administration has spent millions on federal-state-local teams battling meth in the Midwest, the Southwest and California. He said the administration supports expanding federal drug courts and working to "tighten regulatory controls" on meth ingredients.

Campaign spokesmen assert Kerry may have said something about meth at some point in his Missouri travels, but they couldn't provide any transcript or news report to back that up. Kerry did briefly refer to Iowa's meth problems during a Washington speech last month.

Surrogates are talking about meth, however. Campaigning for the Democratic ticket at the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia, Iowa's Vilsack quipped: "Rural residents of Missouri and Iowa are far more likely to confront a meth dealer than a terrorist."

Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards called meth "this poison" during an Aug. 16 campaign stop in Greene County, where more than 40 labs have been taken down this year.

"The spread of this has just been deadly out in rural communities and small towns," Edwards said, adding that meth is a growing problem in his home state, North Carolina. "We have to have a commitment as a nation to do something about it."

Edwards went on to criticize Bush administration funding cuts for law enforcement, such as community oriented policing. The Kerry-Edwards campaign said more recently that Kerry supports federal legislation based on an Oklahoma law making it harder to buy large amounts of over-the-counter meth ingredients.

Bond said the reality of the meth battle is that local officers are on the front lines, not federal officeholders.

Sheriffs interviewed by the AP praised Bond's efforts in delivering money. But they would be gratified if the presidential candidates talked about national strategies.

"I'd like to hear them talking about meth, but with action, not just buzz words," says Montgomery County, Mo., Sheriff Bob Davis, a Republican who recalls the arrest of a whacked-out meth user who kissed a horse before brandishing a knife at a deputy.

Says Franklin County Sheriff Gary Toelke, a Republican whose county raided more than 65 meth labs this year: "I know the big national issue is homeland security and justifiably so. But I hope in dealing with that, they don't lose sight that meth is a growing problem."

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