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Meth-ingredient tracking system under fire

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, says lobbyists for a Washington, D.C.-based drug industry trade group are trying to mislead West Virginia lawmakers about the effectiveness of a statewide system that tracks sales of a cold medication that's also used to make methamphetamine in clandestine labs.

Lobbyist Sam Minardi, who works for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, recently sent a letter and newspaper article to legislators, saying a recent meth lab bust in Elkins shows that the 8-month-old tracking system -- called NPLEx -- is working.

Perdue, however, said a West Virginia State Police report about the meth arrest shows the opposite. The Elkins man who was arrested purchased pseudoephedrine 13 times since January and sold it to a meth cook, according to the report.

"NPLEx didn't stop this guy and catch this guy," said Perdue, who heads the House of Delegates' health committee. "Good police work caught this guy."

Minardi referred questions to his superiors, who said he was simply trying to show that police in West Virginia are using NPLEx in investigations of meth production.

"It was good police work," said Carlos Gutierrez, state government affairs director for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association. "He was trying to convey . . . that NPLEx can provide a lot of intelligence in all sorts of investigations."

Perdue and some police officers have sharply criticized NPLEx in recent months. All West Virginia pharmacies started reporting sales of pseudoephedrine, a key meth-making ingredient, in January.

Last year, NPLEx supporters promised that the computerized system would block illicit sales and lead to a sharp decline in meth labs statewide. However, police have seized a record-number of the clandestine labs -- 370 so far this year. Drug industry lobbyists now say that NPLEx is helping police find the labs -- a claim that many law enforcement officials dispute.

On Sept. 5, Minardi sent a letter to state lawmakers, along with a news story about the Elkins meth bust.

". . . When used to its capabilities, NPLEx is a tremendous law enforcement tool," Minardi wrote. "This is certainly not the only instance where NPLEx has led to the arrest of an alleged meth cook, but it is the most recent."

Minardi went on to say, "I hope this helps shed some light on this issue and demonstrates just how effective NPLEx can be in our fight against the production of meth."

On Monday, Perdue wrote back that NPLEx was useful in blocking illegal sales of pseudoephedrine. But Perdue said the tracking system doesn't stop meth production at clandestine labs.

According to the criminal complaint, State Police received a tip about a meth lab in Elkins on Aug. 22.

Officers searched the home of an Elkins couple, finding a gas generator, Coleman fuel, lithium batteries, two cans of denatured alcohol, a bottle of isopropyl alcohol, hydrogen peroxide and an empty box of pseudoephedrine -- all common ingredients typically used to make meth. The Elkins couple stored some of the supplies in a Lucky Charms cereal box, according to the criminal complaint.

One of the suspects told troopers that he purchased pseudoephedrine "six or seven" times this year.

State Police checked NPLEx and discovered he had bought the cold and allergy medication 13 times -- usually at the beginning and end of every month, as state law sets a limit on the amount of pseudoephedrine consumers can purchase every 30 days.

NPLEx blocked the Elkins man from purchasing the drug one time -- on May 16, after he tried to exceed the monthly limit.

Ten days later, he purchased pseudoephedrine again, according to the police report.

"There was no investigation that occurred because he was blocked," Perdue said. "He just waited a few days and bought it again."

The Elkins man bought pseudoephedrine five additional times -- in June, July and August -- before State Police arrested him, the criminal complaint says.

"He successfully bought this product legally to produce meth for eight months," Perdue said. "NPLEx did not stop him from creating a meth lab. And only after he was caught did the fact that he was using pseudoephedrine to make meth become known."

NPLEx has blocked about 3 percent of pseudoephedrine sales this year, according to state Board of Pharmacy data.

Gutierrez said police in other states use the tracking system to monitor people who have multiple purchases blocked. Police can flag meth suspects by putting them under a "watch" in NPLEx. The system automatically sends emails to law enforcement agencies when the suspect next buys the drug.

In other states, officers also have used NPLEx to break up "smurfing rings" -- groups of people hired to buy pseudoephedrine for meth cooks.

"It provides valuable, valuable information," Gutierrez said.

State lawmakers have twice introduced legislation -- in 2011 and 2012 -- to require a prescription for pseudoephedrine, better known under brand names such as Sudafed, Actifed and Claritin-D, but legislators rejected both bills after drug industry and retail store representatives lobbied against the proposals.

On Wednesday, state Sen. Greg Tucker, D-Nicholas, said he would introduce a similar bill to make pseudoephedrine prescription-only. Oregon and Mississippi are the only two states that require a doctor's prescription to buy the cold and allergy medication.

"The number of arrests for manufacturing meth has doubled in the past year and continues to multiply," Tucker said. "There will still be problems, but prescription pseudoephedrine in West Virginia is a step we have to take to stop this plague and to win back our reputation as a state with reliable workers who want good jobs to provide for their families."

Gutierrez suggested that state lawmakers should instead pass a bill that would bar people convicted of meth-related crimes from purchasing pseudoephedrine. Several states already have such a law.

In West Virginia, pharmacies keep pseudoephedrine behind the counter, and customers must show a photo ID to purchase the drug.

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


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