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Talking Points of Mary Lou Leary, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General
Office of Justice Programs

National Rural Law Enforcement Meth Summit
June 22, 2010
Denver, CO

       Thank you, Jim.

       I'm so glad to have the opportunity to be here today to help you kick off this important initiative. The Justice Department is fully aware of the problems that methamphetamine addiction and its related crimes pose to rural communities. We are proud to be partnering with all of you in an effort to use the unprecedented Recovery Act to help America's communities recover from an extraordinary drug problem.

       I'd like to first congratulate the seven states participating in the Rural Law Enforcement Methamphetamine Initiative. Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Nevada, New Mexico, and Oklahoma were selected for this competitive program based on strong applications and exceptional need.

       I'd also like to welcome the other rural states that are participating in this summit. Representatives from Arkansas, Maine, North Dakota, Oregon, and Wyoming have all traveled to be with us. Thank you for being here.

       This initiative is a unique partnership between our Bureau of Justice Assistance and Strategic Applications International, and will provide $2.2 million in Recovery Act funds to strengthen rural responses to meth. The seven selected states will receive specialized training and technical assistance, a full-time Meth coordinator, a comprehensive assessment, and a clear action plan.

       This is only one of the Justice Department's many ongoing efforts to work with national and local partners to combat meth. Programs like the BJA-funded Meth360 are already helping local practitioners educate their communities about the dangers of meth.

       BJA also supports initiatives that are improving law enforcement investigations, providing protection for drug endangered children, and helping meth-addicted offenders who are returning to the community.

       The Recovery Act has put millions of Americans to work, funded thousands of projects, and helped to improve our economy. But it is not done yet. Recovery - whether from a horrible addiction or a near financial collapse - is a multi-step process. The impact of the Recovery Act continues to grow, and summer 2010 is poised to be the most active Recovery Act season yet.

       Last year, this Administration invested billions of dollars in transformative projects that will continue to create jobs and generate economic growth for years to come. And that investment is exemplified by this project, which has the potential to restore communities and rebuild individual lives.

       Decades ago, our government declared a "War on Drugs." In many cases, these urban "Wars" involved actual gun battles and literal surrenders of huge swaths of territory to drug dealers. As a former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, I got an up close view of that "War" in D.C. in the 80s and 90s. D.C. was one of the epicenters of the crack problem, and I can tell you that the "War" was never won.

       One of the primary reasons for this impasse was a fundamental misunderstanding of drug use and abuse. Most people don't want to be addicts, and their goal in doing drugs isn't to defy law enforcement - the goal is to escape reality. In the case of meth, in particular, the goal is often to feel super human, to be able to work long hours and require little rest. Communities become infected with drugs; people are exposed, and some are more susceptible than others.

       Yes, everyone makes a choice when they partake of an illegal substance. But it's clear that fighting a war against drugs is the ultimate losing battle.

       Especially as we are forced to deal with drugs like meth - drugs that are stronger, more addictive, and can literally alter brain structure, we have to avoid creating unilateral approaches with catchy slogans. This administration is committed to a more balanced approach to addressing meth that recognizes the role of enforcement, as well as prevention and treatment.

       Just as with any dangerous infection, one treatment strategy is isolation - or, in the case of drug users, prison. For individuals who engage in drug trafficking or violent drug offenses, incarceration is not just warranted; it is required. But for other drug offenders, prison fails to treat the causes of their behavior and is a costly and ineffective option. Unique solutions like drug courts are helping us address this issue.

       I'll talk later about some of the successes we've seen with drug courts, but first I want to fully frame the meth epidemic we are facing.

       According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, there were 966 meth lab incidents, including seizures and accidents, in March 2009. That's in one month. The independent Rand Corporation, using data from 2005, estimated the economic cost of meth at between $16 and $48 billion. That same study noted that many of these costs are related to crime and criminal justice. The 2010 meth threat assessment conducted by the Justice Department shows that meth availability is at a 5-year high.

       Unlike many other illicit drugs, meth disproportionately impacts rural communities. The Maine Rural Health Research Center found that young adults in small rural communities use meth at a rate that is nearly twice the rate of young, urban adults. A report by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire noted that stimulant abuse, including meth abuse, is seven times higher among unemployed Americans in rural areas than among unemployed urban citizens. And, as you can attest, rural communities have limited resources to prevent and treat drug problems.

       But, you know all that. You've actually seen it - and not on some meth special on cable. You've seen it in the streets of your towns and the homes of your neighbors.

       For many of you, meth has become a specialty. You have followed the development of federal, state, and local responses to the drug. You have voiced your opinions, and you have celebrated some small, and some significant, victories. In 2005, when Congress passed the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act limiting the purchase of cold medicines containing precursor ingredients, small batch meth manufacturers took a major hit.

       But meth is not gone. Meth producers have found ways to get around the Combat Meth Act by using multiple individuals to purchase cold medicines.

       These "smurfers," as they are known, actually make a living purchasing large volumes of cold medicine. Then there are the international drug trafficking organizations that continue to feed the demand for meth by moving large quantities of the drug across our borders.

       Meth, like all drugs, doesn't just hurt the users. Meth destroys families and communities, and it does so systematically and completely.

       In his bestselling novel, Methland, Nick Reding provided a powerful picture of one small town - Oelwein, Iowa. His stories of the utter devastation that meth brought to the town are truly moving. But the story of Oelwein is, ultimately, the story of hope and tentative success.

       During the course of Reding's study, the town experiences an unprecedented revitalization through the combined efforts of many dedicated officials and citizens. The promise of Oelwein is most clearly demonstrated by a young boy we meet early in the book.

       Buck, a two-year-old boy at the time, is famous for having the "highest cell-follicle traces of methamphetamine ever recorded in [Iowa] state history" in his hair, Reding reports. Both his parents were addicts. His playground was a meth lab; his food was prepared in the same microwave his parents used to make meth. His toys, his clothes, and his life were contaminated.

       Drug endangered children like Buck, studies have found, experience increased behavioral problems and face major academic, occupational, and social challenges. They are, in short, raised to fail.

       That is why the Justice Department is leading an Interagency Task Force on drug endangered children. The task force just got started in May, and they are already working to build partnerships at every level of government. The primary aim of the task force is to provide federal leadership to disseminate information about promising practices in the field. In the long-term, this centralized knowledge will inform the development of a national training program for professionals. We know that we can best help children like Buck by identifying what works and getting that information to professionals like you.

       Buck is rare in that his story does have a promising, if not yet happy, ending. Buck's father, Major, following an arrest, gets clean and moves Buck in with his parents, who are raising the child at the end of the book. They are caring and nurturing, but there is no way of knowing how much his childhood exposure will ultimately harm Buck. The effects of meth exposure on children have not been adequately studied, and can only be inferred from the horrible damage it causes adult abusers.

       I'm sure that all of you know a man like Major or a child like Buck. You've seen meth labs and the kids who inhabit them. I hope, through this initiative, you will get the opportunity to see kids like Buck grow up to be the men that their fathers never were - men who never have to struggle with addiction and who never endanger their children.

       As I've mentioned, we are not fighting a war on meth. But, much like in medicine, we are trying to find, and encourage, best practices. This initiative will provide each state with customized assessments based on their existing problems, successful programs, and the working sessions that take place during this summit.

       For instance, in New Mexico, the meth problem is highly concentrated in the Northwest quadrant of the state, where 95 percent of all felony drug arrests are meth related. This troubled portion of the state includes a part of the Navajo Reservation, where the meth problem is particularly pronounced. The area recently experienced a triple homicide related to meth. In another shocking case, an 81-year-old woman was arrested with her daughter and granddaughter for manufacturing and selling meth. You know the problem is serious when making meth becomes a multi-generational family business.

        This Recovery Act program will allow New Mexico to concentrate on intervention initiatives, including drug courts. With low recidivism rates, New Mexico's drug courts have already demonstrated their potential.

       Drug courts use the coercive power of the court in a creative way. These courts focus on collaboration with social service and public health agencies to address underlying problems, like drug addiction and mental illness. The results are astonishing.

       According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, drug courts increase treatment program graduation rates by nearly 80 percent for meth-addicted people. In fact, when compared with other programs, drug courts quadrupled the length of abstinence from meth.

       Drug Courts have been shown to work against tough drugs and even tougher odds, and the Justice Department is committed to their continuation and growth. Since 1997, BJA has provided more than $44 million for rural drug court programming. President Obama's 2011 budget requests $57 million to help state, local, and tribal governments develop and expand problem-solving courts.

       Because of its location, Kansas is crossed by several major highways, and has become a superhighway for drug traffickers. Kansas officials estimate that 80 percent of the meth in Kansas is manufactured in Mexico and California and then transported to, or through, Kansas.

       In the Northwest portion of the state, law enforcement officers have experienced several violent encounters with drug traffickers along Interstate 70. To respond to the dire need for effective enforcement, Kansas has already used Recovery Act funds to establish regional drug task forces.

       Last December, a member of one of these task forces pulled over a U-haul truck for following too closely behind a Cadillac. Just a short while later, the trooper encountered the same Cadillac at a gas station. Suspicious, the officer asked for permission to search the vehicle. The subject responded by running. In the car, the officers uncovered 270 pounds of ecstasy - or $8.7 million worth of the drug. This was the largest roadside drug seizure in history by state and local law enforcement.

       These same task forces have also seized 42 pounds of meth, 103 pounds of cocaine, 3,660 pounds of marijuana, 26 vehicles, and more than $1.5 million in currency.

       This initiative will allow Kansas to continue to apply Recovery Act funds to help keep its communities and highways safe for Kansans, and the law enforcement officers who protect them.

       The stories of Kansas and New Mexico are strikingly similar to the stories of states all across the country. While I don't have time to enumerate all the examples, we know that you are all dedicated to stopping the spread of a drug that is mentally, physically and culturally destructive.

       In closing, I'd like to borrow once again from Reding, who spent so much time with meth addicts and those who strive to save them. He says, "Part of meth's draw in U.S. small towns beginning in the 1980s is that it's both cheap and easy to make from items available, in bulk, at the farmers' co-op and the drugstore. The real basis of meth's attractiveness, though, is much simpler: meth makes people feel good. Even as it helps people work hard, whether that means driving a truck or vacuuming the floor, meth contributes to a feeling that all will be okay, if not exuberantly so."

       Few things are more valued in America's rural communities than work ethic. No one has ever called farming or factory work easy. For a brief and elusive time, meth makes hard work easy, and it makes hard-working employees euphoric. The high never lasts, we know, but we are now striving to make the addiction go away.

       Recovery is an ongoing process, and helping our communities recover from something like the meth epidemic will take a long time. Using the Recovery Act and a wide array of Justice Department programs and services, we can clean up our main streets, repair our communities, and rebuild damaged lives. With a balanced policy of prevention, treatment, and enforcement, we can stop fighting a war on drugs and start the healing process.

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