Target meth material buyers, pharmacist says
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- To reduce the growing number of methamphetamine labs in West Virginia, the state should crack down on "smurfers" -- people hired by meth cooks to purchase a cold medication that's being used to make the illegal drug, a veteran pharmacist told a task force Wednesday.
"You see them lined up, one after another," said Donn<co cq> Neurman, a Charleston pharmacist for the past 40 years. "That's who's coming into the drug store. That's who we're dealing with time and time again."
Meth makers recruit large numbers of people to buy pseudoephedrine, a cold and allergy medication that's a key meth-making ingredient, Neurman said. The "smurfing" practice also circumvents a new statewide computerized system called NPLEx, which tracks pseudoephedrine sales and blocks people from exceeding state-mandated monthly and yearly purchase limits, he said.
"Law enforcement needs to put the heat on the 'smurfer,'" Neurman said.
He said his pharmacy receives calls throughout the day from people inquiring whether the store sells pseudoephedrine.
Later, groups of people show up to buy the decongestant -- sold under brand names such as Sudafed, Claritin-D and Aleve D.
"They're an accessory to criminal activity," Neurman said. "That's who's buying it. Not the end user. They're sending someone in their place."
Neurman said pharmacists can refuse to sell pseudoephedrine, which is kept behind the counter but doesn't require a prescription. Customers must show an ID to purchase the sinus medication.
He said pharmacists and pharmacy technicians get put in a tough spot when they must decide whether customers are buying pseudoephedrine for legitimate or illicit purposes.
"It's very difficult to confront somebody," said Neurman, who used to own the Medicine Shop in Kanawha City and now works part-time at a pharmacy in Charleston. "Nobody wants to sell it."
Law enforcement agencies across West Virginia have reported more than 300 meth lab seizures so far this year, setting a pace that's expected to shatter last year's total.
About 100 of the clandestine labs have been discovered in Kanawha County since January.
Kanawha County pharmacies have sold more than 52,000 boxes of pseudoephedrine this year, the highest per-capita sales rate in West Virginia.
"It's the worst thing I've seen in my 40 years as a pharmacist," said Neurman, who's serving on an anti-drug task force established by the Kanawha County Commission. "Retail pharmacies need to take a stand."
State lawmakers have twice introduced legislation -- in 2011 and 2012 -- to require a prescription for purchasing pseudoephedrine. But legislators have rejected the bills, after drug industry representatives lobbied against the proposals.
The panel plans to take testimony, question speakers, collect data and issue a report by the end of the year.
The group also is reviewing prescription pill abuse in Kanawha County.
"It's a rather sweeping authorization," said Dr. Dan Foster, who heads the task force. "We hope to make recommendations to the county, the Legislature and the governor."
The task force next plans to meet Sept. 19.
Reach Eric Eyre at email@example.com or 304-348-4869.