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City Council candidates debate methamphetamine abuse

Methamphetamine abuse has become the country's new drug obsession, with media and politicians across the country--and in Tucson--jumping on the anti-meth bandwagon during the last year.

"Over the last 12 months, there has been a growing awareness of the problem," says Pat Benchik of COPE Behavioral Services. "We've been aware of the problems of methamphetamine for years, but more recently, the number of people we're encountering in our clinics upon intake who have methamphetamine-related issues has increased dramatically."

Benchik blames the increase on three factors: The drug is cheap, easy to make (with instructions available on the Internet) and highly addictive.

It's also highly destructive to users, who often turn to theft to sustain their habits, according to Tucson Police Capt. David Neri, who blames meth users for half of Tucson's property crimes.

To combat the meth problem, Catholic Bishop Gerald Kicanas called together elected officials and community leaders last March to talk strategy, says Benchik. About six weeks later, COPE teamed up with a coalition of clergy, elected officials and other concerned citizens to form the Anti-Meth Alliance. The group has since developed a number of study committees "to stimulate community activity to try to take a number of actions to have an impact on this," says Benchik.

The meth problem has emerged as an issue in this year's City Council races, with Democrats Nina Trasoff and Karin Uhlich saying Republican incumbents Fred Ronstadt and Kathleen Dunbar haven't done enough to battle meth.

The central debate comes down to which of the candidates is tougher on the sale of non-drowsy cold medicines, such as Sudafed, that contain pseudoephedrine, a vital ingredient for tweakers who cook meth in home kitchens. Although Neri estimates that three-fourths of the meth on Tucson's streets is imported, cracking down on home labs would eliminate a major source of toxic contamination in homes and hotels where meth is cooked up.

Earlier this year, the Arizona Legislature considered two competing bills regarding pseudoephedrine. The first bill, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Leff (R-Paradise Valley), required that tablets containing pseudoephedrine as the sole active ingredient be kept behind the counter or secured in glass cases. The alternative bill, sponsored by Rep. Tom O'Halleran (R-Sedona), required tablets that contained pseudoephedrine as any active ingredient be secured in a similar manner. Leff's bill, which was supported by pharmaceutical and retail lobbyists, ultimately became law.

Uhlich complains that Dunbar supported Leff's bill rather than O'Halleran's proposal.

"Kathleen fought against taking Sudafed tablets off the shelves," Uhlich says. "She supported Barbara Leff's bill; she opposed Terry Goddard's bill, and she consistently came up with reasons of why this can't be done or that can't be done."

But Dunbar says she has led the anti-meth fight. She's been working with the Anti-Meth Alliance as well as the police force and hosted the first town hall on meth abuse in June, two months after the Anti-Meth Alliance formed.

Last month, she brought forward a 17-point motion to the City Council that included a provision requiring tablets containing any trace of pseudoephedrine to be kept in a glass case or behind the counter.

But whether the council has the authority to require such a restriction remains to be seen. Leff's bill included a provision preventing local jurisdictions from imposing restrictions stricter than state law.

Dunbar calls Uhlich's criticisms "kind of despicable. I think they're taking a social epidemic and turning it into a political football. When you don't have anything to run on, I guess you have to make stuff up."

Uhlich says that Dunbar's proposals are good, but she worries that the Republican incumbent will take a dive if she's re-elected.

"I don't trust the city will be as aggressive as it needs to be in holding the ground on this," Uhlich says. "It's follow-through that's key and that's where Kathleen can appease lobbyists--by delaying follow-through."

Uhlich would like to see the tablets banned outright, in favor of other forms of medicine that can't be used to make meth.

"It's unconscionable that drug companies don't yank tablets and just sell gel caps," she says. "Give me one good reason--other than the products are flying off the shelves, and sales must be booming--why they just can't just sell gel caps. There's no good reason."

Ronstadt dismisses the accusation that the council has been soft on meth enforcement as "crap." He says the council has acted on requests from the police force.

"The reality is, we face issues as they come up, and the police inform us about issues as they come up so we can make correct policy decisions," says Ronstadt, who supports Dunbar's proposal. "We took a timely decision based on the information that was provided to us by the police department."

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