The crippling reach of methamphetamine (search) abuse has become the nation's leading drug problem affecting local law enforcement agencies, according to a survey of 500 sheriff's departments in 45 states.

More than half of the sheriffs interviewed for a National Association of Counties (search) survey released Tuesday said they considered meth the most serious problem facing their departments.

"We're finding out that this is bigger problem than we thought," said Larry Naake, executive director of the association. "Folks at the state and federal level need to know about this."

About 90 percent of those interviewed reported increases in meth-related arrests in their counties over the last three years, packing jails in the Midwest and elsewhere.

The arrests also have swamped other county-level agencies that assist with caring for children whose parents have become addicted and with cleaning up toxic chemicals left behind by meth cookers.

The report comes soon after the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy restated its stance that marijuana (search) remains the nation's most substantial drug problem. Federal estimates show there are 15 million marijuana users compared to the 1 million that might use meth.

Dave Murray, a policy analyst for the White House, said he understood that the meth problem moving through the nation was serious and substantial. But he disagreed that it had reached the state of an epidemic.

"This thing is burning, and because it's burning, we're going to put it out," he said. "But we can't turn our back on other threats."

Sheriff Jon Marvel of western Indiana's Vigo County estimates that 80 percent of the inmates in his county's jail in Terre Haute are held on meth-related charges.

He also points to an operating budget that has risen from $800,000 in 1999 to about $3.4 million last year as the best way to illustrate the stranglehold meth has on the county's resources.

"I want it stopped and I want it stopped now, and there is no way that's going to happen," Marvel said.