Meth lab seizures on pace to double last year's total
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia law enforcement agencies have seized 332 methamphetamine labs during the first six months of this year, setting a pace that could more than double last year's number of meth busts.
More than 100 meth labs were found in Kanawha County alone, five times more than in any other county in West Virginia. Wood County had 21 meth busts, followed by Cabell County with 19, Putnam County with 18, and Mason County with 17 labs seized, according to a State Police count released Tuesday.
The sharp increase comes despite a new law designed to curb the proliferation of meth labs.
"The growth of meth labs has been phenomenal," said Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, who heads the House Health and Human Resources Committee. "It's a cheap high. It's the cheapest high they can get."
Other counties with double-digit meth lab busts include Lewis County with 15 meth labs discovered, and Greenbrier, Boone and Randolph counties, all with 11 seized labs each. Upshur County had 10 meth lab busts so far this year.
Last year, law enforcement agencies shut down 288 meth labs in West Virginia.
During the 2012 legislative session, state lawmakers passed Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's substance-abuse bill, which included a provision that requires statewide electronic tracking of pseudoephedrine, a cold and allergy medication that's also a key meth-making ingredient. The new law also limits the purchase of pseudoephedrine -- better known under the Sudafed or Claritin D brand names -- to three boxes per month and 20 per year.
Starting in January, all West Virginia pharmacies started reporting to the "real-time" tracking system -- called the National Precursor Log Exchange, or NPLEx.
Despite the computerized system, pseudoephedrine sales remain high. West Virginians have purchased about 44,200 boxes per month of the sinus medication this year, according to data released by Perdue's office Tuesday.
Kanawha County had the highest number of pseudoephedrine sales, with more than 59,000 boxes sold during the first six months of this year.
"Clearly, the sales of pseudoephedrine are not going down," Perdue said.
But Bridgett Lambert, executive director of the West Virginia Retailers Association, noted that NPLEx is keeping pseudoephedrine out of criminals' hands.
The tracking system blocked the sale of 11,635 boxes of the sinus medication since January, according to the report.
In Kanawha County alone, 4,584 boxes were blocked.
"We do feel that it's very clear that many boxes have been blocked and kept from being put on the street," Lambert said. "Before, these wouldn't have been blocked at all."
Lambert said NPLEx is helping police locate illegal meth labs and arrest meth makers, along with people they hire to purchase pseudoephedrine. Police can flag people who try to exceed monthly and yearly limits, she said.
"I do feel it's the most effective tool available to law enforcement," Lambert said. "And if it's not being used effectively, we want to make sure training is done properly. It's instantaneous data that they can look at and use."
Law enforcement officers have previously told the Gazette that the sharp increase in meth lab seizures this year shows that NPLEx isn't working.
But Lambert said NPLEx's critics aren't giving the tracking system enough time to prove its worth.
NPLEx will start blocking more people who try to exceed their 12-month pseudoephedrine limit later this year, she said.
"We feel it's going to take 18 to 24 months to effectively show the results in West Virginia of what NPLEx can do," Lambert said. "It's a very valuable tool, and it's only six months old now."
Fifteen of West Virginia's 55 counties -- including larger counties such as Berkeley -- reported no meth lab busts so far this year, according to the State Police count of the clandestine labs. Another large county, Monongalia, had only one meth lab bust. Raleigh County reported five lab seizures.
Last month, Perdue asked West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey to investigate how much pseudoephedrine is being diverted to manufacture methamphetamine.
Perdue also asked Morrisey to take legal action against any drug companies "responsible for engaging in that activity in the knowledge that such sales accrues to the benefit of malefactors," according to a letter sent to the attorney general July 11.
Morrisey has not responded to the letter, Perdue said.
West Virginia lawmakers have twice introduced legislation -- in 2011 and 2012 -- to require people to get a doctor's prescription to buy pseudoephedrine, often sold under the Sudafed brand name. Legislators rejected the bills after drug industry representatives lobbied against the proposals.
Oregon and Mississippi are the only states that mandate prescriptions to purchase pseudoephedrine. In West Virginia, pharmacies keep the medication behind the counter, and customers must show photo identification to buy it.
Reach Eric Eyre at email@example.com or 304-348-4869.