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Kanawha task force recommends Rx for medications with meth-making ingredient

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A Kanawha County task force recommended Thursday that West Virginia legislators pass a law requiring a prescription for cold medicines that contain an ingredient used to make methamphetamine in clandestine labs.

The county has been overrun by meth labs this year -- more than 100 at last count.

Task force members say the prescription requirement would reduce the number of clandestine labs. In recent months, the panel has heard stories about children being burned, and police and firefighters being poisoned by toxic meth labs.

"We owe it to our law enforcement, we owe it to our first responders and we owe it to our children," said Brenda Isaac, a school nurse administrator who sits on the task force, which voted 10-2 for the proposal. "If this helps [reduce meth labs] at all, it's worth doing."

Meanwhile, drug industry lobbyists said the prescription requirement for medications containing pseudoephedrine, a key meth-making ingredient, would punish law-abiding consumers who suffer from allergies and colds. The lobbyists predicted that making the medications prescription-only would drive up health-care costs.

"At the end of the day, it will affect the poor more than anyone else," said Carlos Gutierrez, who sits on the panel and lobbies for the Consumer Products Healthcare Association, a Washington, D.C.-based group whose members manufacture over-the-counter drugs.

Also Thursday, the task force voted 6-5 to reject a recommendation that legislators establish a meth-offender registry that would ban people from purchasing pseudoephedrine if they're convicted of a meth-related crime. Drug industry lobbyists back the registry. Not all task force members voted on the proposal.

Law enforcement officers who serve on the task force said the proposal could send the wrong message to lawmakers, giving them a second option that would allow them to ignore making pseudoephedrine prescription-only.

"I'm afraid if . . . there's option 'A' and option 'B,' they're going to pick the lesser option, instead of there being a strong recommendation that we're for prescription-only," said Steve Neddo, who heads the county Planning Department.

Gutierrez, who voted for the meth-offender registry, said he was surprised the task force snubbed the proposal to crack down on meth addicts.

"That would clearly target criminals," Gutierrez said, "but they outright rejected it."

Thursday's meeting became contentious at times as lobbyists and law enforcement authorities argued over whether requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine -- sold under brand names such as Sudafed and Claritin-D -- would lead to fewer meth labs.

West Virginia authorities have seized more than 460 meth labs this year, shattering last year's total. At the same time, West Virginia pharmacies sold more than 383,000 boxes of pseudoephedrine. Police say much of the cold medicine is being diverted to manufacture meth.

"It's all about greed," said Chad Napier, a task force member who is a narcotics detective with the Charleston Police Department. "You [lobbyists] are paid by these people, I understand that, but the only argument has got to do with money."

"How many people have died from prescription drugs in this state," Gutierrez responded. "Has [a prescription] really served as a deterrent?"

"How many people have been blown up in a meth lab fire?" asked Mike Rutherford, chief deputy with the Kanawha Sheriff's Department. "We could go on and on about this. It's greed. That's all it is."

"Look, if we're really going to debate this, we don't have to resort to rhetoric," Gutierrez shot back.

"It's not rhetoric. It's true," Rutherford said. "Look at all the money you're making on this."

The task force's recommended prescription requirement would exempt "tamper resistant" medicines, such as Nexafed and Zephrex-D, which contain pseudoephedrine. Meth cooks can't make meth from those products.

The Kanawha County Substance Abuse Task Force also voted unanimously Thursday to recommend that lawmakers:

• Pass a "Good Samaritan" law that would give immunity from prosecution to people who call 911 to report drug overdoses.

• Earmark funding for a public-education campaign about the dangers of prescription drug abuse.

• Establish an anonymous "tip line" for people to report medical professionals who prescribe excessive amounts of controlled substances.

The Kanawha County Commission established the task force in September. The group expects to deliver a written report to the commission by Nov. 30.

"Hopefully, we'll make some difference," said Dr. Dan Foster, who heads the task force. "These issues are so important to this community and to the state."

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


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