The Bush Administration declined Wednesday to target Los Angeles for special assistance under the President's anti-drug initiative at this time, even though the city is believed to be fast replacing Miami as the nation's cocaine trafficking capital.
Despite growing evidence of the city's role as a drug distribution hub, William J. Bennett, director of the White House Office of Drug Control Policy, and Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh said that Los Angeles is not guaranteed special designation as a "high-intensity drug trafficking area."
"We can't assume any particular city or area will be designated," said Bennett, who appeared with Thornburgh at a press briefing on the anti-drug program, which was outlined by Bush in a prime-time television address Tuesday.
Under the Administration's program, cities designated as high-intensity drug trafficking areas will receive increased levels of federal funding and participate in special law enforcement programs to battle drug distributors.
Bennett, architect of the Administration plan, said that criteria for the special designation will not be fully formulated until February. Until that occurs, he said, no cities can be assured of the additional assistance.
But California lawmakers intensified their efforts to qualify Los Angeles for the special assistance, contending that the criteria were established last year in anti-drug legislation approved by Congress.
"I just don't understand (the Administration's) response," said Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City). "It could make L.A. a high-intensity area with the snap of a finger."
Rep. Mel Levine, (D-Santa Monica), urged his colleagues to support the immediate designation of Los Angeles and the rest of Southern California as high-intensity trafficking areas.
"I am pleased that the President is taking a serious stand against this deadly scourge threatening America," Levine said in a brief speech on the House floor. "But I am frustrated that the strategy still does not target resources and personnel to the source of the nation's drug problem: Los Angeles, California."
Levine, who said he would encourage Southern Californians to deluge the White House with angry letters, characterized Bennett's contention that the criteria have yet to be established as "outrageous" and "baloney."
Bill Livingstone, an aide to Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), agreed that the criteria were written last year, specifically with Southern California in mind.
Under the criteria, according to Livingstone and others, a designated area must be a center of importation, distribution or manufacture of drugs; must have some anti-drug programs in place; must be the center of a larger nationwide drug distribution network, and must display a need for federal assistance.
Wilson sent a letter to the President last week urging him to target Southern California when he unveiled his drug plan because it fits all those criteria, Livingstone said.
According to Bennett, however, the President's plan is deliberately "not city-specific."
Law enforcement officials in California have maintained for months that Southern California in general and Los Angeles in particular have begun to eclipse Miami as the nation's distribution center for cocaine and other drugs.
"We have never received our fair share of federal resources," Sheriff Sherman Block said Wednesday in Los Angeles. "These people in Washington have never recognized there is life west of the Mississippi. What kind of designation they make is irrelevant.
"There are some basic inequities that have to be addressed, and if they are addressed, it will affect our ability to deal with the problem."
Supervisor Ed Edelman said he wrote Bennett a letter--signed by other supervisors--calling on the federal government to designate Los Angeles County as a high-intensity drug trafficking area.
"It wouldn't make sense to designate other regions as high trafficking areas and leave out Los Angeles," Edelman added. "We certainly should be considered."
Last month, Thornburgh presented Bennett with a three-volume report portraying the Los Angeles area as a major center of drug trade and violence that is spreading into many other parts of the country.
The report, requested by Thornburgh, contained material prepared by 93 U.S. attorneys who worked for almost a year to map the country's drug problem region by region. The section on Los Angeles was prepared by the U.S. attorney's office for the central district of California, which includes Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.
The report asserts that Los Angeles is a "uniquely vulnerable" staging area for illegal drug production and distribution, supplying the nation with as much as half of its cocaine, 80% of its PCP or "angel dust," and much of its methamphetamine.
Staff writer John Kendall contributed to this story in Los Angeles.