WASHINGTON - Local law enforcement officials decried yesterday huge budget cuts proposed by the Bush administration to a national network of drug-interdiction task forces, including one that provided more than $12 million to the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area this year.
Members of the Maryland State Police, Baltimore Police Department and the Charles County Sheriff's Department joined a bipartisan group of senators and representatives on Capitol Hill to protest President Bush's recommendations to cut funding for the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area programs by more than half.
Under the administration's budget, funding would be reduced from $227 million to $100 million for the coming fiscal year.
Administration officials and some conservative groups complain that the 15-year-old program has become misguided and bloated, expanding its budget some sixfold since its inception and venturing far afield in 33 areas to tackle local drug problems, such as methamphetamine labs in small Midwestern cities.
But Thomas H. Carr, director of the Washington-Baltimore regional program, said he has been told that the cuts would mean the end of his $3.5 million drug treatment program for nonviolent offenders offered at 12 sites, including ones in Baltimore City and Baltimore County.
"I don't know what planet we're on if we don't find sufficient resources to fight drugs in this country," said Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana.
Utah Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch blamed the White House's drug czar, John P. Walters, who heads the Office of National Drug Control Policy, for failing to fully support a joint local-federal initiative that has proven its worth.
"I don't want to see this strategy dumped because we're so stupid," he said at the morning news conference. "I hope that ONDCP gets the message."
Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Democrat who has long supported the program, said that his state likely could make up part of the $12 million spent in his region this year. But to do so, he said, would miss the beauty of the anti-drug effort.
"It's the coordination" among local, state and federal narcotics officials that makes the task forces so successful, Hoyer said.
The High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, known as HIDTA, was introduced in 1990 to target hot spots for large-scale drug trafficking in Los Angeles, Houston, New York and New Jersey, South Florida, and the Mexican border areas of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
The Baltimore-Washington area was added as the sixth region in 1994. Administration officials say the HIDTA program has become overextended.
"The whole point here is that people don't doubt the effectiveness of the program," Jennifer DeVallance, a spokeswoman for the White House drug policy office. "We believe that the program should return to its original mission, and the budget will be sufficient to accomplish its original goals."
She said that overall federal funding for drug treatment programs will increase in the president's budget.
Tom Schatz, president of the nonpartisan Citizens Against Government Waste, questioned whether the program's supporters understand the need to rein in the federal budget when the nation is prosecuting a costly war and battling record deficits.
"Anytime a program like this spreads around the country, it's always hard to reduce the funding," Schatz said. "But where are we going to save the $100 million? If not HIDTA, what then?"
Supporters argued that the bang for the buck from the program is among the best in the federal government.
An earlier report from the Office of Management and Budget found that HIDTA failed to test whether the program was meetings its goals. So its directors from across the country unveiled a new internal study yesterday in response, showing that for every $1 spent on the program, law enforcement officials have seized $64 worth of illegal drugs and drug-related assets.
Police chiefs, including Baltimore's, warn that cutting funding by more than 50 percent would hobble the program's proven effectiveness.
"Ending the successful HIDTA formula that law enforcement has worked on for years will jeopardize major cases, networking, leads and partnerships which have proven to work," Baltimore Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm said in a statement released yesterday.
According to statistics released by the National HIDTA Directors Association, 3,538 drug trafficking organizations were dismantled or disrupted in 2004 because of the program. More than half of them engaged in the drug trade across state borders or internationally.
Locally, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said that the federal anti-drug task force was instrumental in providing support to city police after the arson set in the East Baltimore rowhouse of Angela and Carnell Dawson on Oct. 16, 2002. The couple, who had complained to police about drug dealing in their neighborhood, died, along with five of their children.
The Washington-Baltimore HIDTA draws together 54 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in Maryland, Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia, calling on 417 personnel last year to participate in its operations. This summer, it plans to house a new fugitive unit run by the U.S. marshal out of a Greenbelt office, Carr said. Baltimore County police spokesman Bill Toohey said yesterday that seven detectives work directly with HIDTA. But he was not completely pessimistic about the proposed budget cuts.
"Our feeling is that if HIDTA is diminished there are other existing task forces for us to participate in," Toohey said, noting the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force as one alternative. "We would simply take our resources and redeploy them."
Sun staff writer Anica Butler contributed to this article.