Task force promises 'open mind' to combat meth problem
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Most members of a Kanawha County drug abuse task force support requiring a prescription to purchase a cold medication that's also used to make illegal methamphetamine in clandestine labs.
But the task force's leader says the group will remain open to other suggestions to curb the county's growing meth lab problem.
"We're trying to be inclusive," said Dr. Dan Foster, a former state senator who's heading the task force's first meeting today at 1:30 p.m. at the Kanawha County Courthouse. "This is a fact-finding group. We're starting out with an open mind."
For years, Foster has been a vocal proponent of making the cold medication pseudoephedrine prescription-only as a way to reduce the number of meth labs in the state. Law enforcement agencies have found a record-number of the clandestine labs this year. Pseudoephedrine -- better known under brand names such as Sudafed and Claritin-D -- is a key ingredient in meth.
Foster said the task force would collect information, take testimony, question witnesses and review laws at meetings modeled after U.S. congressional hearings. Committee members plan to question drug industry representatives and retailers who have lobbied against past proposals to require a prescription for pseudoephedrine.
"It's important for us to understand their budget in this for lobbying and marketing," Foster said. "The public should be aware of that."
Bridget Lambert, a retail store lobbyist and task force member who opposes the prescription requirement, said she realizes she'll be outnumbered on the panel. But she said she hopes they'll listen to her suggestions.
"I'm going to go in there with an open mind and explain this is not a one-fix issue," said Lambert, executive director of the West Virginia Retailers Association. "My hope is that Kanawha County will take a comprehensive look at this issue. There are many ways to attack this problem."
Other task force members who oppose making pseudoephedrine prescription-only include Carlos Gutierrez, state government affairs director for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, and Richard Stevens, a lobbyist for the West Virginia Pharmacists Association.
Stevens said a pseudoephedrine prescription law could drive up costs for pharmacies and consumers.
"I'm hoping there will be an open discussion of all sides," Stevens said.
Since January, all West Virginia pharmacies have been reporting pseudoephedrine sales to a national computerized tracking system called NPLEx. The system has blocked about 3 percent of pseudoephedrine sales in West Virginia, after people tried to exceed monthly and yearly limits.
Some law enforcement officials say the system isn't working, noting the sharp increase in meth labs.
But NPLEX supporters question whether the electronic system is being used as intended: to track criminals who try to buy excessive amounts of the cold medication.
Stevens and Lambert said NPLEx should be given a chance to work.
"We hope to see law enforcement agencies adequately using the system to apprehend abusers," said Stevens. "I'm not sure that's happening."
Kanawha County commissioners want to hear different perspectives on the county's battle with meth labs and prescription pain pill abuse, said county Engineer John Luoni, who's coordinating the 15-member task force.
"Hopefully, they'll look at different solutions based on historical data and the experiences of members of the task force," Luoni said. "I don't think anyone has said there's only on possible solution to this problem. We have a broad spectrum of people looking into this."
In addition to Foster, task force members who support requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine include representatives from the Kanawha County planning department, sheriff's office, school board, health department and prosecuting attorney's office. The state Board of Pharmacy, whose executive director will serve on the panel, also supports the prescription requirement.
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has been asked to serve on the task force, but he hasn't responded to the invitation, Luoni said. Assistant Attorney General Maryclaire Akers is expected to take his place.
The panel also will examine the prescription drug abuse problem in Kanawha County. The group will hold hearings through the end of the year.
State lawmakers have twice introduced legislation -- in 2011 and 2012 -- to require a prescription for pseudoephedrine. But lawmakers rejected the bills, after drug industry representatives lobbied against the proposals.
The task force is expected to 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.
Reach Eric Eyre at email@example.com or 304-348-4869.