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Bush budget to funnel money to Safe Indian Communities Initiative

WASHINGTON - In a federal domestic budget with little spending to spare, the Bush administration has found $16 million for a Safe Indian Communities Initiative that will strengthen the hand of tribal law enforcement against methamphetamine abuse.

The program, included in the fiscal year 2008 budget proposed by President Bush, responds to a national threat identified by tribal leaders as one of their worst fears, according to Interior Department Secretary Dirk Kempthorne.

''It's happening everywhere in the country,'' Kempthorne said of meth abuse. ''But we need to do something about it for Indian country.''

Seventy-four percent of law enforcement agencies in Indian country have identified meth as the greatest drug threat in their communities; and a Navajo police chief has said he sees a higher number of meth-related arrests than alcohol-related arrests, Interior materials maintain. The foreign drug cartels that supply the majority of U.S. meth view the isolated, often impoverished rural communities of Indian country as meth enterprise zones, with limited law enforcement and plenty of residents who may be easy marks for a fast buck and a quick high. The low-cost, intense high of meth has led to its characterization as ''the poor man's cocaine,'' and its abuse has spawned the full gamut of social disorders - child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, suicide, unemployment, health damage and declining school achievement.

''Tribal leaders describe a methamphetamine crisis that has the potential to destroy an entire generation if action isn't taken,'' Kempthorne said. ''They refer to it as the second smallpox epidemic and rank it as the number one public safety problem on their reservations.''

The $16 billion program, administered through Interior's BIA, will provide $5 million to hire and train additional law enforcement officers; $5 million to increase staff at Indian detention facilities and train detention officers; and $6 million for specialized drug enforcement among law enforcement officers, as well as public awareness campaigns.

The initiative was bound to get a degree of welcome from tribal leaders who have identified anti-meth programs as a priority since 2005. But given the scope of the meth problem in Indian country, as outlined by Interior, the chairman of the House of Representatives' Natural Resources Committee called the funding inadequate. ''While it seems to realize there is a problem that needs attention,'' said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., ''it is clear that the administration cannot bring itself to do the work to fully address it.''

A Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing on the Interior budget was scheduled for Feb. 15.