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Meth lab busts on record pace

Meth lab busts in W.Va.

2012 - 59*

2011 - 229

2010 - 154

2009 - 146

2008 - 110

2007 - 125

*(through Feb. 24)  

Source: W.Va. State Police CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The number of illegal methamphetamine labs seized this year in West Virginia is on a record-setting pace.

In the first 54 days of the year, police discovered 59 clandestine labs in homes, motel rooms and vehicles across the state, according to new data from the West Virginia State Police.

"We're getting more than one a day," said Lt. Mike Goff, who heads up the State Police's drug lab task force. "It would be a record year, if it continues."

At the current pace, meth lab busts would exceed the state's record seizure of 353 labs in 2005.

The data also shows a steady increase in meth lab busts since 2008.

Authorities found 110 labs that year, 146 in 2009, 154 in 2010 and 229 last year.

"The state is on track to easily exceed last year's number of meth busts," Goff said.

Police have investigated 22 meth labs in Kanawha County this year.

"The meth lab problem in Kanawha County is as serious as anywhere in the country," said Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha. "At some point, we absolutely have to say getting control of these drug-related issues is the No. 1 health issue for the state of West Virginia." 

Mason County had the next highest number of labs this year with six. Hardy, Nicholas and Webster counties had three labs each.

"We usually see about two-thirds of the state's meth labs in Kanawha County," Goff said. "But we're starting to see them getting scattered out much more."

State Sen. Dan Foster, D-Kanawha, has advocated for a bill that would require a prescription for the purchase of pseudoephedrine, a cold and allergy medication that's also a key meth-making ingredient.

Foster and law enforcement authorities say the measure would clamp down on meth production in West Virginia.

The proposal has gotten little traction in the Senate this year. Last year, a prescription-only bill failed on a tie vote in the Senate.

Instead, a majority of lawmakers support Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's plan to adopt a "real-time" pseudoephedrine tracking system -- called NPLEx. The electronic monitoring system is designed to block illegal sales.

Substance abuse bill advances

On Monday, the Senate Finance Committee advanced Tomblin's bill -- without a prescription-only pseudoephedrine requirement. 

State Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, said the passage of Tomblin's wide-ranging legislation shouldn't get tied up with a single issue.

"This is the most comprehensive bill we've ever had before us to handle a problem that has affected many families, including my own," Plymale said.

Tomblin's substance abuse legislation initially limited the amount of pseudoephedrine that consumers could buy each month to 7.5 grams -- down from 9 grams under existing state law. 

Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee inserted an amendment that dropped the limit to 3.6 grams. The Finance Committee restored Tomblin's 7.5-gram limit Monday.

Foster, a CAMC physician, said allergy and cold sufferers don't need the higher amount.

"The 3.6 grams was enough for a legitimate purchaser," Foster said. "If it's not working, then they really need to see a doctor." 

Hallie Mason, Tomblin's policy director, said the governor's bill used 7.5 grams because that's the limit for mail-order sales under federal law. 

Tracking system's effectiveness questioned

The State Police's meth lab data released this week raises doubts about the NPLEx tracking system's ability to curb meth production.

Between July 1 and the end of December, 56 percent of all pseudoephedrine in West Virginia was purchased from pharmacies that already use NPLEx, or the National Precursor Log Exchange, Goff said. 

So far this year, State Police have investigated 47 people suspected of operating meth labs. Eighty percent of those individuals did not exceed the state's monthly 9-gram pseudoephedrine purchase limit.

During the past year, the same 47 people made 500 pseudoephedrine purchases, according to State Police records. More than 300 of those sales (63 percent) were from pharmacies already using the NPLEx system.

Goff said the prescription-only proposal makes sense.

"If I'm in the cake-making business, and you cut off my flour supply, then I'm not going to be able to bake as many cakes," Goff said.

Lobbyists for drug companies and West Virginia retailers say the prescription-only plan would inconvenience consumers and drive up health care costs.

"The large majority of purchases in West Virginia are by law-abiding consumers who rely on these medicines for cold and allergy relief," said Sam Minardi, a lobbyist for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association. "If [pseudoephedrine] is made prescription-only, law enforcement will lose the ability to identify individuals making illegal purchases."

Minardi defended the NPLEx tracking system, saying it will become more successful as additional states sign on to use it. Virginia recently became the 22nd state to adopt electronic monitoring of pseudoephedrine sales.

"While we are pleased some pharmacies already use electronic blocking technology, the real benefit of the system is based on the strength of mandatory participation both within the state and in neighboring states," Minardi said. "Because the system identifies the location, date, and time of purchase, this type of criminal activity could be easily identified by law enforcement if NPLEx were implemented statewide"

Tomblin's substance abuse bill will be on amendment stage on the Senate floor today.

Also Monday, senators passed a bill (SB212) that makes it a felony offense to disrupt emergency communications and public utility services. Violators would face a maximum fine of $10,000 and a 10-year prison sentence.

Frontier has reported a recent rash of copper-wire telephone cable thefts in West Virginia. Some of those thefts have caused phone outages and disrupted emergency communications.

The Senate also passed legislation (SB514) that classifies retail shops with roll-your-own cigarette machines as manufacturers. The bill would require the operators of some 13 outlets around the state to collect the equivalent of the 55-cent per pack state cigarette tax on every 20 cigarettes produced by cigarette rolling machines in the stores.

The House of Delegates will next take up both bills.

Also Monday, senators rejected a proposal -- offered by state Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph -- that would have required mothers with babies to use "discretion" when nursing in public.

Senators turned down Barnes' amendment to the "child's right to nurse" bill (SB4) on a voice vote.

The legislation, which advanced in the Senate on second reading, allows mothers to breastfeed "in any location, public or private, where mother and child are authorized to be."

West Virginia has the third lowest breast-feeding rate in the United States, according to a study released last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gazette staff writer Phil Kabler contributed to this report. Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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