Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, the likely GOP nominee for governor next year, unveiled the first of his election-year legislative priorities by offering bills to crack down on the manufacture and use of methamphetamines.
At a midday news conference, Kilgore called for a package of bills during the General Assembly session that begins in January. The bills would double prison terms for making methamphetamine, make it a crime to produce the drug in the presence of a child and create a multi-agency "strike force" to clean up areas where the substance is made.
The legislation, which will be sponsored by Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) and Del. Charles W. Carrico Sr. (R-Grayson), also would require people convicted of running the clandestine factories to pay for cleanup.
"What we have is a growing problem throughout the entire commonwealth reaching dangerously high levels" in southwest Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley, said Kilgore, who added that the drug is made with over-the-counter cold remedies and household chemicals.
"We rarely see cocaine being manufactured in Virginia. We do, however, see meth being manufactured here and with increasing frequency," the attorney general said. "The fact is that while cocaine is manufactured in Bogota, meth is more likely manufactured in places like Bristol or Botetourt."
The drug, a stimulant that can be distributed as pills or a powder, has become a major issue of concern in some areas, including the northern Shenandoah Valley. In the past five years, methamphetamine has become the most-seized drug along the north-south corridor between Winchester and Harrisonburg, a belt that parallels Skyline Drive and Interstate 81. In Virginia this year, 78 labs have been shut, compared with 34 last year.
Obenshain said 82 percent of all hard drugs seized in the Shenandoah Valley during the first half of 2003 were methamphetamines. In many cases, the drug has replaced OxyContin and other prescription painkillers that often are abused in rural areas, he said.
Carrico and Obenshain said they fear that the drug problems in the state's rural areas might be harbingers for other parts of the commonwealth.
"In southwest Virginia and in the Shenandoah Valley, we've been getting a preview of what is heading our way," Obenshain said.
Experts in Virginia politics said the bundle of legislation is Kilgore's attempt to continue to burnish his image as a candidate who is tough on crime and public safety issues as he prepares for the gubernatorial campaign against his likely opponent, Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D). Last year, Kilgore outlined a package of legislation that addressed the increasing gang activity throughout the state, as well as an agenda that dealt with domestic violence.
Experts said Kilgore's action also is an attempt to address a problem in parts of the state that are politically key: Southwest Virginia, where he is from, and the Shenandoah Valley.
"It certainly helps him shore up a part of the state that Mark Warner did very well in. . . . I'm sure he does not want to provide the Democratic nominee [the opportunity] to make those same inroads," said Mark Rozell, a professor of politics at George Mason University.