WASHINGTON – When police visited an assisted-living facility near Pittsburgh they found employees cooking more than just the evening meal — authorities seized a lab used to make methamphetamine (search).
Police also made two of the more than 400 arrests that were part of the first nationally coordinated operation aimed at producers and sellers of the highly addictive drug.
Authorities announced Tuesday the results of Operation Wildfire (search), a cooperative effort among police in more than 200 cities and the Drug Enforcement Administration (search). More than 200 pounds of the drug and 56 labs were seized.
Eight counties in rural western North Carolina accounted for 70 of the 427 arrests made nationwide.
Two elderly residents of the assisted-living facility in Donora, Pa., had to be hospitalized for exposure to toxic chemicals from the meth lab, DEA administrator Karen Tandy (search) said. In Minneapolis, drug agents and police seized a lab in a hotel that is across the street from an elementary school, Tandy said.
"It's homemade, cheap and readily available," Tandy said, noting that after starting in the West, meth has been found in every state.
Authorities also took custody of 30 children, including two in Missouri who were living in a bug-infested home where meth was being produced, she said.
The arrests followed intense criticism from members of Congress and local law enforcement that the federal government is not doing enough to combat the use of methamphetamine. More than half the 500 sheriffs in a recent survey called meth their top problem, far surpassing cocaine and marijuana.
Local officials applauded the results announced Tuesday, calling them good first steps. But the administration has proposed eliminating $804 million in grants to local authorities for drug-fighting efforts, said Joe Dunn, assistant legislative director for the National Association of Counties.
"We'd like them to reverse that decision," Dunn said, noting that Congress appears likely to restore at least $400 million.
Methamphetamine, which can come in the form of a crystal-like powder or rocklike chunks, is an addictive stimulant that can be smoked, snorted, injected or taken orally. Its street names include "ice," "crystal," "speed" and "tina."
Meth can be made using ingredients in over-the-counter cold medicines, prompting a dozen states to pass laws forcing stores to remove medicines containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine from shelves.
At least 12 million people have tried meth, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Authorities have dismantled more than 50,000 clandestine meth labs since 2001.
Far more people use marijuana, but Attorney General Alberto Gonzales recently said that meth has overtaken marijuana as the greatest danger to children.
Gonzales has led an administration-wide effort to respond to those who say that the meth problem was being ignored until recently. Tandy and McGregor Scott, the U.S. attorney in Sacramento, Calif., recited lengthy lists of law enforcement actions and prosecutions aimed at meth.
"We have been dealing with this issue for years," Gonzales said at a Justice Department news conference.
Gonzales said he spoke Monday with his Mexican counterpart, Daniel Cabeza de Vaca, about finding ways to stem the movement of meth from Mexican labs to the United States. The government estimates that roughly two-thirds of the meth in the United States comes from Mexico.
U.S. officials also are working with Mexicans to try to control shipments from other countries of pseudoephedrine and other raw materials used in meth, Tandy said,
The DEA also unveiled an anti-meth Web site aimed at teens, www.justthinktwice.com.
The Bush administration earlier this month announced a training laboratory for police agencies and $16.2 million in grants to focus on treatment of meth addicts.