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Majority of W.Va. meth lab busts are in Kanawha

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kanawha County has reported eight times as many methamphetamine lab seizures as any other county in West Virginia so far this year, according to data released Tuesday by the State Police.

Kanawha led the state with 113 meth lab busts. Cabell County was the next highest with 14, followed by Mason County with 11, Randolph and Jackson counties with nine each, Lewis County at seven, and Wood County with five meth lab seizures.

Kanawha County's meth lab busts are on pace to surpass 300 for the year -- more than the 288 labs seized by law enforcement across the entire state in 2012.

"It's going to get worse," predicted Trooper Jason Crane, the clandestine lab response coordinator for the State Police. "Methamphetamine is highly addictive. We have so much more work to do if we're going to combat this problem."

In Kanawha County, law enforcement officers are finding the bulk of illegal labs in Clendenin, Elkview, St. Albans and Sissonville.

Kanawha County, with 10 percent of the state's population, had 54 percent of meth labs seized in West Virginia so far this year.

The county remains the "epicenter" of the methamphetamine problem with more individuals making meth in smaller, "shake and bake" or "one-pot" mobile labs, said Mike Goff, a state pharmacy board administrator who has studied the issue for years.

"There are just so many people cooking it," Goff said Tuesday. "It spreads like wildfire."

Kanawha County Sheriff Johnny Rutherford said the county has more law enforcement agencies located here -- the sheriff's office, multiple municipal police forces, the Metro Drug Enforcement Network Team and the State Police headquarters -- than other counties. So it makes sense that Kanawha County would have more lab seizures, he said.

"The smaller counties don't always have the resources to find those labs," Rutherford said.

Statewide, law enforcement agencies have reported 209 meth lab seizures this year -- about double the number of busts recorded during the same time period in 2012. At the current pace, the number of meth lab busts could top 500 by the end of the year -- which would become the highest total in state history.

In January, West Virginia started using an electronic tracking system designed to curb sales of pseudoephedrine, a cold and allergy medication that's also a key meth-making ingredient.

The computerized National Precursor Log Exchange, or NPLEx, blocks pseudoephedrine sales when buyers try to exceed monthly and yearly limits. West Virginia adopted the tracking system as part of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's comprehensive substance abuse legislation that passed in 2012.

Last week, the Louisville, Ky.-based company that developed NPLEx said the system was helping West Virginia law enforcement officers shut down meth labs, leading to the significant increase in clandestine lab seizures across the state.

On Tuesday, law enforcement officials acknowledged that NPLEx was an important aid in combating the state's meth epidemic, but they downplayed its role in helping police locate illegal labs.

"NPLEx is a tool, but it's not the answer," Rutherford said. "The large majority of our labs are found by road patrols, based on tips called in."

Goff and Crane said State Police find labs while investigating or making arrests for other crimes.

"The use of NPLEx to actually locate the lab rarely happens," said Goff, a former State Police officer. "The State Police, and most other law enforcement agencies, haven't the resources to sit at computers and search for 'smurfs' [people who buy pseudoephedrine for meth makers]. Other states may have lab task forces like that, but not in West Virginia."

Goff and Crane said meth makers circumvent the tracking system.

"NPLEx automatically limits purchases to the state limits but doesn't deter sales," Goff said. "It only causes meth operators the minor inconvenience of having someone else buy it for them."

During criminal investigations, NPLEx can be used to identify suspects who supplied pseudoephedrine to meth makers, Crane said.

"It's a great tool, but it's used after the fact more so than prior to," he said.

In January, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report that found electronic tracking systems such as NPLEx enforce pseudoephedrine sales limits, but haven't reduced the proliferation of meth labs.

Since 2011, the system has blocked the sale of more than 480,000 boxes of pseudoephedrine in 11 states, according to the report. But some states reported that law enforcement officers' use of the NPLEx system led to 10 percent or less of the meth lab seizures.

On Tuesday, Jim Acquisto, vice president of government affairs at Appriss, the company that developed NPLEx, provided testimonials from South Carolina officers who praised the tracking system. Several officers said they used NPLEx routinely in their meth lab investigations.

"There are law enforcement officers all over the country who swear by it," said Acquisto. "They're better able to identify the bad guys as opposed to not knowing who they are. It's much better to know who's attempting to manufacture methamphetamine than not to know."

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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