PENDLETON - The methamphetamine epidemic in Umatilla County is nothing new. That's one of the reasons why the joint Senate/House Committee on Judiciary is making a stop in Pendleton Thursday.
Committee members want to hear first-hand from public officials and local residents about the meth issue. They'll also review several Senate and House bills related to the drug problem.
The number of lab seizures in Umatilla County illustrates how the problem has escalated. Just two meth labs were seized in 1998. Seven years later the number had increased to 91.
Umatilla County was No. 1 in meth lab seizures per capita in the state in 2004, and No. 2 overall (behind Multnomah County, which has about 500,000 more residents). In 2003, Umatilla County was No. 1 per capita and No. 3 overall, with 63 labs seized.
Local law enforcement, including members of the Blue Mountain Enforcement Narcotics Team - which consists of detectives from the Pendleton and Umatilla Tribal police departments, the Oregon State Police and the Umatilla County Sheriff's Office - have been tackling the problem head on.
But funding to combat meth has been disintegrating. And there aren't enough officers, deputies and state troopers to patrol the 3,600-square miles in Umatilla County consistently.
Fighting meth is spendy. Besides the funding it takes to seek out the labs, have officers stand guard on scene and pay for clean up, there are also costs associated with training, special equipment and prosecuting and treating offenders. In addition, property owners who own a building where meth was manufactured must incur the costs of making the facility safe again, which sometimes means demolition.
Public concern over the meth problem has intensified in recent years, and so have the efforts of legislators to make an impact. In November 2004, the state passed a law that puts products with pseudoephedrine in them, such as cold medicines like Sudafed, behind pharmacy and grocery store counters, and limits the amount that can be purchased at one time. The law is an attempt to curb thefts and the large purchase of pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in meth.
Several other Senate and House bills are being considered this session (See story on 3A).
At the federal level, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., whose constituency includes Umatilla County, has pushed for greater funding and tougher laws in the battle against meth. He has written numerous letters to John Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy at the White House, soliciting funds for law enforcement and pushing to have Umatilla County declared a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a designation that could bring in more funding for the drug epidemic and a potential local Drug Enforcement Administration officer.
Most recently, Walden held a series of seven "Meth Summits" for the public throughout Oregon's 2nd Congressional District, including one in Pendleton March 4, to hear from local, state and federal officials about the meth problem and what's being done about it at each level.