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Task force member: group stacked with prescription supporters

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A member of a Kanawha County drug task force alleges that the group was "stacked" with supporters of legislation that would require a prescription for a common cold medication that's used to make illegal methamphetamine in clandestine labs.

Carlos Gutierrez, a drug industry lobbyist who served on the panel, said the task force excluded consumers, local business owners, chamber of commerce representatives and health insurance executives.

Gutierrez also accused task force chairman Dan Foster of handpicking witnesses who want to make pseudoephedrine a prescription-only drug.

Gutierrez criticized several of those speakers, including a Mississippi mayor, "whose testimony was frankly not at all helpful." And Gutierrez had this to say about a Stanford University professor who was a former national drug policy adviser in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations: "Frankly, I had never heard of him until this meeting."

"The task force seemed to have a pre-determined disposition ... and unfortunately didn't take the opportunity to hear from experts in law enforcement, academia, and most importantly, law-abiding West Virginians who have a far different opinion on this issue," said Gutierrez, a lobbyist for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, a Washington, D.C. trade group that represents over-the-counter drug manufacturers.

In a report released last week, the task force concluded that requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine, a key meth-making ingredient, would reduce meth production in Kanawha County and the rest of the state. The proposed legislation would exclude tamper-resistant pseudoephedrine products that can't be cooked into meth. Law enforcement officers have seized more than 500 meth labs statewide this year, a record number.

The prescription-only requirement was one of a dozen recommendations included in the task force report.

"The task force was entirely stacked, and the witness list was entirely geared toward arriving at a pre-determined recommendation," Gutierrez wrote in an email to Foster.

Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper defended Foster and the task force Tuesday. Carper noted the panel included Gutierrez and at least two other lobbyists who represent trade associations that oppose requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine products.

"The committee was totally autonomous," Carper said. "It was fair and balanced."

Foster was unavailable for comment Tuesday.

Gutierrez criticized numerous statements in the substance abuse task force report.

For instance, the report states that meth labs cause fires, explosions and toxic dumps.

"Is it possible to source this?" Gutierrez wrote to Foster. "I've heard anecdotes of fires and explosives but haven't seen actual data documenting the increase."

Gutierrez also took issue with the report's assertion that task force members were a "diverse group."

He said police who oppose requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine - sold under brand names such as Sudafed and Claritin-D - weren't invited to testify before the panel.

"We never heard from law enforcement officers that oppose <co >prescription, individuals we were happy to supply to testify," Gutierrez told Foster.

Foster has said the officers were invited to speak, but he never heard back from them.

Gutierrez challenged statements in the report that said police in West Virginia weren't using a pseudoephedrine-tracking system - called NPLEx - to find meth labs.

Gutierrez cited NPLEx data that shows West Virginia law enforcement officers have searched the database more than 20,000 times and generated 12,000 reports.

The task force report also stated that meth makers were circumventing NPLEx - which blocks pseudoephedrine sales when people try to exceed monthly and yearly limits - by hiring people to buy the cold medicine at multiple pharmacies. Police call the practice "smurfing."

"We were never presented with evidence this was actually occurring in West Virginia, so I don't think we can conclude this," Gutierrez wrote in an email.

Gutierrez said the task force report didn't always "distinguish between opinion, anecdotes and actual sourced data."

"As you may recall, someone from law enforcement attempted to appeal to emotion during the discussion by showing pictures of burn victims - none of which were from West Virginia," Gutierrez wrote.

Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, and Sen. Greg Tucker, D-Nicholas, plan to introduce legislation next month that would require a prescription for non-tamper-resistant pseudoephedrine products.

Gutierrez is expected to talk with state lawmakers about his objections to the Kanawha drug task force report.

"...We were disappointed that the report did not include the full breadth of information on meth use and addiction, meth labs, and drug diversion that currently exists in the public domain," he said Tuesday.

Carper said the report is factual and accurate.

"It tells the truth," he said. "With Mr. Gutierrez's group, the issue is all about money. With Dr. Foster, it's all about the health and welfare of the people of this state."

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


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