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Narcotics expert: States show fix to meth lab problem

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Two years ago in Mississippi, lawmakers passed a bill that required a prescription for a cold medicine that's also used to make methamphetamine. The result: Meth lab busts went down.

In Arkansas, pharmacists are now required to counsel customers before they can buy cold medications containing pseudoephedrine. Meth lab numbers dropped.

In Kentucky, a new law reduced the number of boxes of pseudoephedrine people can buy each year. Meth lab seizures declined there, too.

On Tuesday, the vice president of the National Narcotic Officers' Association told a Kanawha County substance-abuse task force that several states are taking steps to reduce the scourge of meth labs.

"Pseudoephedrine access, uncontrolled, means more meth labs," said Sgt. Jason Grellner, who also heads the Franklin County, Mo., Narcotics Enforcement Unit.

The 15-member Kanawha task force is examining ways to reduce the number of meth labs. Law enforcement agencies have seized 373 labs statewide this year, a record-setting number. In Kanawha County alone, officers have busted more than 100 of the clandestine labs since January.

U.S. pseudoephedrine imports doubled between 2005 and 2010, and not because Americans were suffering from more head colds and allergies, Grellner said. Instead, criminals use the medication -- known under brand names such as Sudafed and Claritin-D -- to cook meth.

"This country is importing gross amounts of pseudoephedrine for meth labs," Grellner said.

In Missouri, some cities and counties have adopted ordinances that require people to get a doctor's prescription for pseudoephedrine products. In those communities, sales of the cold and allergy medication have dropped 96 percent, Grellner said.

In Arkansas, large pharmacies, such as Walmart, Walgreens and CVS, established store polices to make pseudoephedrine prescription-only, after the state passed a law that requires a pharmacist's consultation to buy the medication. The larger pharmacies sell hundreds of boxes of pseudoephedrine a month.

"It was hard for the large stores to conform with the law and meet the consultation requirement," Grellner said, "so they now require a prescription."

He said two pseudoephedrine products -- Nexafed and Zephrex-D -- hold great promise because they can't easily be converted to meth.

Health advocates and law enforcement groups have suggested that states allow stores to sell those products over the counter, while requiring a prescription for standard pseudoephedrine tablets that are easily cooked into meth. However, Carlos Gutierrez, who sits on the task force and works for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, said his trade group would oppose having one set of rules for two tamper-resistant pseudoephedrine products and a prescription requirement for 15 or more other brands.

"You create a government-sponsored monopoly," said Gutierrez, whose group represents companies that manufacture over-the-counter drugs.

Also Tuesday, Gulfport, Miss., Mayor Billy Hewes told task force members that Mississippi's meth lab numbers dropped significantly after the state started requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine. The number of meth lab seizures declined from a high of 698 in 2010 -- before the law took effect -- to 253 last year, he said.

Few pharmacists or customers have complained about the prescription-only requirement, he said.

"There wasn't a lot of pushback," Hewes said. "It was the right thing to do. We were able to immediately show a statistical change."

Gutierrez said surveys show that most Americans vehemently oppose requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine. "It's such an unpopular policy with the general public," he said.

In West Virginia, lawmakers twice introduced legislation -- in 2011 and 2012 -- to make pseudoephedrine prescription-only, but legislators rejected those bills after Gutierrez's group lobbied against the proposals.

The task force, which also is examining prescription pain-pill abuse, plans to report its findings and recommendations to the Kanawha County Commission in late November.

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


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