By Sam Hananel
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Methamphetamine use continued to decline in nearly every part of the country last year as the government sharpened its crackdown on precursor chemicals used to make the illegal drug.
Overall, the number of workplace employees who tested positive for meth dropped 22 percent last year, according to a study released Wednesday by New Jersey-based Quest Diagnostics Inc., the nation's largest drug-testing company. Meth use in the Northeast, however, remained steady.
At the same time, the Drug Enforcement Administration issued a report showing the number of illegal meth lab seizures plunged 31 percent last year, from 7,347 to 5,080.
White House drug policy director John Walters said laws restricting the sale of cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient used to cook meth, and efforts to thwart drug trafficking from Mexico have disrupted the market for meth.
"When we are able to put strategic pressure on the supply of these drugs, what we're seeing is a direct effect for the better on the number of users that we can actually measure with drug tests," Walters said.
The Quest report also found cocaine use in the general work force fell by 19 percent in 2007, the biggest single-year decline in a decade. Figures are based on the results of more than 8.4 million drug tests performed for employers.
While meth use decreased, the Quest study reports that positive tests for amphetamines - less potent stimulants - increased by 5 percent over the same period. Quest researcher Barry Sample said the increase in amphetamine use suggests some workers might be replacing one stimulant drug for another.
As the number of meth labs began shrinking in the United States, they have been replaced by "superlabs" in Mexico and Mexican-run labs in some U.S. border states. DEA Acting Administrator Michele Leonhart said interdiction efforts, coupled with U.S. pressure on the Mexican government to reduce imports of pseudoephedrine into that country, have helped cut down meth trafficking across the border.
"We for the first time on the meth front hear the traffickers themselves and informants report that there's a change," Leonhart said. "They are having a hard time getting the product out of Mexico."
Bill Hansell, commissioner of Umatilla County in Oregon, said he's noticed a decrease in meth usage in his state, but he stressed that it's still a top law enforcement problem.
"We're still seeing a huge percentage of crimes committed that are meth-related," Hansell said.
Some lawmakers in Congress have complained that the Bush administration has cut hundreds of millions of dollars in law enforcement grants used to fight meth and other drug crimes in rural areas.
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Walters said the administration is targeting resources where they can have the most benefit.