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Kanawha task force to tackle meth and pain pill 'crisis'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Kanawha County Commission is setting up a task force that will review ways to crack down on prescription "pill mills" and illegal methamphetamine labs.

The task force plans to gather data, take testimony and hold public hearings, starting next month.

"It's a public-health crisis, and frankly, we've talked about this long enough," Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said Thursday. "We're going to do something about it."

The task force will examine statistics about prescription drug overdoses and pill mills -- illegitimate pain clinics that have sprung up in Kanawha County, Carper said. The group also will review the significant increase in meth lab seizures in the county so far this year, and try to find out if the numbers are linked to a rise in sales of the cold medication pseudoephedrine, a key meth-making ingredient.

In recent years, state lawmakers have rejected bills that would require a doctor's prescription for pseudoephedrine, after drug industry and retail store representatives lobbied against the proposals.

Carper said the task force would look at whether it's possible to pass a county health ordinance to make pseudoephedrine prescription-only. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's substance-abuse bill, signed into law in 2012, includes language that would seem to block cities and counties from passing local ordinances that restrict pseudoephedrine sales at local pharmacies.

"The Legislature should have put an end to this," Carper said. "It's poison."

The Kanawha County Commission has appointed Dr. Dan Foster, a former state senator who sponsored a bill to make pseudoephedrine prescription-only, to head the task force.

Foster also serves on a panel that's been studying the county's meth lab problem for several months.

"This is an issue that has plagued the county for years, and it continues to get worse," Foster said. "The commission's task force is going to actively seek solutions and do what we can to solve this very serious problem."

The task force also will include Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department; a representative from Kanawha County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Plants' office; an aide to Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.; Lynn Fruth, CEO of Fruth Pharmacies; Steve Neddo, Kanawha County's planning director; Dave Potters, executive director of the state Board of Pharmacy; and Brenda Isaac, lead nurse for Kanawha County Schools.

Carper also plans to appoint lobbyists for the Consumer Products Healthcare Association to the panel. The trade group opposes requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine.

"I want them to explain what they've done to the people in our state," Carper said.

Carper also wants Attorney General Patrick Morrisey or his designee to serve on the task force. Since taking office in January, Morrisey has assigned five employees to examine the prescription drug-abuse problem in West Virginia.

House Health Committee Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne, has asked Morrisey to review how much pseudoephedrine is being diverted for illegal meth production in West Virginia. Morrisey, who formerly lobbied for a drug industry trade group, won't say if he'll investigate the problem.

In Kanawha County, police have shut down more than 100 meth labs since January -- a record number.

Carper said the commission has been forced to set aside about $200,000 a year to clean up the clandestine labs.

In January, West Virginia pharmacies started reporting pseudoephedrine sales to a statewide tracking system called NPLEx -- which Tomblin's substance-abuse bill mandated. The legislation also sets monthly and yearly pseudoephedrine purchase limits.

NPLEx has blocked about 3 percent of the drug's sales statewide this year.

Drug industry lobbyists say the tracking system is keeping pseudoephedrine out of the hands of meth-makers. However, Kanawha County law enforcement officers say NPLEx has not reduced meth lab busts as promised. Nor does NPLEx help them find the clandestine labs, police say.

"It was nothing but an industry dodge," Carper said.

The task force plans to hold an organizational meeting next week, Foster said. The group hasn't scheduled a date and time. Public hearings are expected to start the last week of September.

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


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