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Chief deputy: Meth-making tracker system not working

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A highly-touted drug tracking system designed to curb methamphetamine production in West Virginia hasn't led to a single meth lab bust in Kanawha County this year, the sheriff's chief deputy told health advocates Wednesday.

The statewide electronic tracking system -- called the National Precursor Log Exchange, or NPLEx -- went online in January. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's sweeping substance-abuse bill mandated the system, which tracks sales of pseudoephedrine, a cold and allergy medication that's also a key meth-making ingredient.

Kanawha County law enforcement agencies have seized more than 100 meth labs this year -- a record-setting pace -- but NPLEx apparently isn't helping police find the clandestine labs.

"We have not had any incident I'm aware of in Kanawha County where we used NPLEx to go and find a meth lab," said Mike Rutherford, chief deputy at the Kanawha sheriff's office, during a meeting Wednesday with community health advocates at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.

In 2012, drug-industry lobbyists told state lawmakers that NPLEx would reduce meth lab seizures. After law enforcement agencies reported a record number of meth lab busts statewide earlier this this year, NPLEx supporters said the system was helping police find and shut down the labs.

Rutherford, who was Kanawha County's sheriff from 2004 to 2012, said those statements are wrong on all accounts.

"I don't want to find more meth labs," Rutherford said. "I want to eliminate them."

Law enforcement agencies in Kanawha typically find meth labs after receiving tips from people who call the county's 911 Center and drug enforcement hotline, Rutherford said. Ongoing investigations of other crimes also lead to meth lab seizures, he said.

"We don't have the manpower, money or resources to look at thousands of transactions [that show up on NPLEx]," said Rutherford, who spoke Wednesday at an informal meeting of health advocates and law enforcement officials who are examining ways to curb meth use. The Kanawha Coalition for Community Health helped organize the meeting.

Mike Goff, a former West Virginia State Police trooper who now works for the state pharmacy board, said NPLEx sales data could help authorities prosecute criminals who manufacture meth. The tracking system also limits the purchase of pseudoephedrine -- better known under the Sudafed brand name -- to three boxes per month and 20 per year.

"It's for preventing the labs," Goff said. "Finding the labs -- it's not good for that."

Meth makers already have figured out how to circumvent the NPLEx system, Goff and Rutherford said. The criminals hire "smurfers" -- groups of people who travel with meth makers and buy extra pseudoephedrine for them.

"They'll grab a bunch of people, and five or six of them will buy their limit," Rutherford said. "NPLEx doesn't stop that."

Kanawha County has reported eight times as many meth lab seizures as any other county in West Virginia so far this year, according to State Police data released last month. More individuals are now making meth in smaller "shake-and-bake" or "one-pot" mobile labs, police say.

"We're finding them under bridges, in motel rooms, up in the woods, in the trunks of cars, in backpacks," Rutherford said. "It's just not in houses anymore."

Meth-related costs -- for lab cleanups, investigations, officer training, special clothing and equipment -- continue to escalate, Rutherford said.

Kanawha County had to purchase a "meth [cleanup] truck" that cost $125,000, and train eight technicians who respond to meth lab busts.

"There's a tremendous cost in what law enforcement has to do," Rutherford said. "It's unbelievable."

The meth labs pose a significant health hazard to the public, said Dr. Rahul Gupta, chief health officer at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.

"It's as toxic as any haz-mat [hazardous-material] cleanup," Gupta said.

The clandestine labs also are putting children's lives in danger, said Delegate Tom Azinger, R-Wood.

"Kids are at 50 percent of the homes where raids are taking place," he said. "The thing it's doing to kids is unbelievable."

In recent years, West Virginia lawmakers have twice killed bills that would have required people to get a prescription to purchase pseudoephedrine. Pharmacies keep the medication behind their counters, and customers must show a photo ID to buy it.

Two states, Oregon and Mississippi, have laws that make pseudoephedrine prescription-only.

Marshall Fisher, executive director of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, said meth lab incidents have dropped 70 percent since the state enacted a law requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine.

"If we did this nationwide, this is a problem that would go away overnight," said Fisher, who spoke to the group by phone Wednesday. "This isn't just a public-safety issue; this is a public-health issue."

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


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