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Drug expert: NPLEx won't stop meth usage, labs

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Electronic drug-tracking systems like the one West Virginia adopted at the start of the year don't stop methamphetamine production or use, a former drug policy adviser in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations said Wednesday.

Keith Humphreys, now a psychiatry professor at Stanford University, said West Virginia could decrease meth making by requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine, a cold and allergy medication that's also used to manufacture meth in clandestine labs.

"Electronic tracking of cold medication sales will not reduce meth use or meth labs, but prescription-only restrictions will," Humphreys said at a behavioral health conference in Charleston.

In January, a new state law required pharmacies to report pseudoephedrine sales to a national database called NPLEx. The mandate was part of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's 2102 substance-abuse bill.

This year, state law enforcement agencies have seized 370 meth labs, setting a pace that's expected to double last year's total.

NPLEx has blocked about 3 percent of pseudoephedrine sales -- when customers hit monthly and yearly box limits.

"Simply counting up the amount of pseudoephedrine going out the door doesn't do anything," Humphreys said. "There's no other way to say it: It doesn't work."

On Wednesday, Humphreys cited a study that compared meth lab busts in Oregon and Kentucky. Oregon has a prescription-only law; Kentucky does not.

In Kentucky, pharmacies started reporting to NPLEx in 2008. Meth lab seizures increased from 429 that year to 1060 in 2012.

By contrast, after the prescription-only law passed in Oregon, meth lab busts declined by 96 percent.

"In Oregon, they haven't had to remove a single child from a meth lab house in seven years [since the prescription-only law passed]," Humphreys said.

In 2010 and 2011, West Virginia lawmakers killed bills that would have required prescriptions for pseudoephedrine, after drug industry representatives and retailers lobbied against the proposals.

At least two legislators have said they plan to introduce similar bills during the upcoming legislative session.

If West Virginia passed a pseudoephedrine prescription law, other states likely would follow, Humphreys predicted.

"If one state passes it," he said, "the incentive for other states would go up."

A mental-health advocate who attended Wednesday's conference questioned whether criminals would "doctor shop" and obtain pseudoephedrine for non-medical reasons like they do with prescription painkillers in West Virginia.

Humphreys said that isn't likely to happen.

"It's very easy to fake pain," he said. "It's hard to fake a stuffy nose."

Humphreys praised other parts of Tomblin's substance-abuse bill. He said the new law strengthens West Virginia's prescription monitoring program, which spotlights suspicious prescribing practices. The bill also increases training for physicians who write prescriptions for controlled substances. Those steps reduce prescription drug abuse, Humphreys said.

"There are some good policies in the new law," he said.

Humphreys said the law should be expanded to allow first responders -- police officers and firefighters -- to administer a drug called naloxone to people who overdose on painkillers. West Virginia has one of the nation's highest drug-overdose death rates.

"This is a way to save lives," Humphreys said.

He also suggested that West Virginia "lock in" Medicaid recipients to a single doctor or health-care provider to prevent "doctor shopping" for narcotics.

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


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