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Meth Menace Part I: From meds to meth

Rachel Molenda
A car seat is turned over outside Room 217 at the Economy Inn in Nitro. An 18-month-old boy was found in the room where officers arrested two women for cooking meth.
Rachel Molenda Rooms were condemned at the Economy Inn in Nitro after two women were arrested for cooking meth in November.
Rachel Molenda Yellow signs ordering a hotel room remain closed were posted on every room door of the Economy Inn in Nitro following a meth bust in November.
For the Gazette Photo illustration by Kenny Kemp and Victoria Zigadlo

See also: Stories from meth's front lines

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In the weeks before their arrest, Jennifer Boggs and Jennifer Funk went on a shopping spree for cold medicines used to clear up stuffy noses and make illegal methamphetamine.

Boggs and Funk shopped at Walmart, Target, Meds-2-Go Express and Rite Aid stores from Charleston to Huntington, records show. They bought Sudafed 12 Hour, Allegra D, Sunmark and Health Mart brands -- nasal decongestants containing pseudoephedrine, the main ingredient in meth.

And then they checked into Room 217 at the Economy Inn in Nitro.

On Nov. 21, Nitro police, acting on an anonymous tip, conducted a "knock and talk" at Room 217.

Inside, they found Boggs and Funk, along with an 18-month-old boy. There were bugs everywhere. Officers found beakers, rubber tubing, scales, razor blades, bags of red phosphorous, syringes, sulfuric acid, coffee filters, bulk matches and empty blister packs of pseudoephedrine cold medicine tucked into a box of Kellogg's Honey Smacks cereal.

Boggs and Funk were charged with attempting to operate a meth lab.

"They are getting [pseudoephedrine] wherever they can get it," said Maj. David Richardson, a Nitro police officer. "They steal it, trade things for it, have other people they know buy it, whatever they need to do to get it."

Across West Virginia, drugstores are selling cold medicines to criminals, helping fuel a massive increase in meth production this year, according to a Sunday Gazette-Mail investigation.

West Virginia law enforcement agencies have busted more than 500 meth labs since January -- the most in state history.

As a result, West Virginia is suffering from an unprecedented wave of explosions, fires, burns, toxic poisonings and environmental destruction.

Children and law enforcement officers have been sent to the hospital for respiratory illnesses after being exposed to meth. Ambulances have had to be shut down and decontaminated. Sheriff's departments, strapped by tight budgets, are spending money to buy "moon suits" and special trucks to clean up the toxic drug.

Law-abiding West Virginians who live next to properties with meth labs have been forced to leave their homes and apartments. Landlords, hotel owners and operators of storage units complain about the increasing cost of cleaning up meth labs -- as much as $17,000 for a small home.

"Due to meth labs, West Virginia's children, families, neighbors, friends, businesses and property owners are suffering terrible health and economic consequences," said Judy Crabtree, who helps lead a group called West Virginia Intervention on Meth Labs Committee. "The meth lab epidemic affects all of us, no matter where we live."

Meth busts peak where pseudoephedrine sales are higher

Look at the counties in West Virginia where pharmacies sell the most boxes of pseudoephedrine per capita: That's where you'll find the most meth labs.

So far this year, Kanawha County pharmacies have sold more than 80,000 pseudoephedrine-containing cold medicines. On a per-person basis, Kanawha pharmacy sales were more than twice the state average, and 46 times higher per-capita than in Monroe County, which had the lowest sales rate, according to a Gazette-Mail analysis of sales data from January to mid-November.

Kanawha County has been overrun with meth labs -- 150 reported at last count -- or 30 percent of all labs seized in the state and four times more than any other county. Monroe County hasn't had any meth labs this year.

"There's a definite correlation between the counties with high numbers of boxes sold per person and high meth lab numbers," said Mike Goff, a former State Police officer who now tracks meth labs and drug sales at the state Board of Pharmacy.

Rural Nicholas County had the next highest pseudoephedrine sales rate. The Summersville Walmart in Nicholas County consistently ranks as one of the top-sellers of pseudoephedrine products in West Virginia. Authorities have busted 11 meth labs in Nicholas County, and another 17 combined in neighboring Fayette and Webster counties.

Pharmacies in the counties of Putnam (25 labs), Cabell (20 labs), Wood (35 labs), Jackson (14 labs), Logan (nine labs) and Randolph (18 labs) also sold more boxes of pseudoephedrine than the state average on a per-person basis.

"That's where the diversion of pseudoephedrine is happening," Goff said. "That's where it's going for something other than sinus congestion."

Upshur County authorities seized 23 labs -- a high number for a rural county -- but Upshur's pseudoephedrine sales rate fell below the state average, according to the Gazette-Mail analysis.

Four counties -- Monongalia, Ohio, Wetzel and Harrison -- also exceeded the state sales average, but have reported few meth labs. Wetzel County authorities haven't busted any meth labs this year.

Such numbers could depend on store locations -- along Interstate highways that stretch through multiple counties, Goff said.

Three of those counties -- Monongalia, Ohio and Wetzel -- border neighboring states.  Criminals could be buying pseudoephedrine at West Virginia pharmacies, but making meth in clandestine labs across the border, he said. "There are going to be anomalies," Goff said.

Legislature twice rejects prescription bills

In 2011, West Virginia law enforcement officers and medical professionals had a fix for West Virginia's meth lab problem: Require a prescription for cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine.

Oregon and Mississippi reported dramatic declines in meth lab numbers, after passing laws that made Sudafed and other pseudoephedrine pills prescription-only. The new laws made it harder for criminals to get their hands on the main ingredient used to cook meth. Oregon and Mississippi essentially put local meth makers out of business.

Legislation to do the same in West Virginia sailed through the House of Delegates by a vote of 77-23 during the 2011 session.

Next up was the Senate. More than 50 uniformed police officers and paramedics filled the Senate gallery to watch the vote.

Senators deadlocked on the bill, 16-16. The West Virginia Senate has 34 members. Then-Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, now governor, was serving as acting governor at the time and hadn't voted in the Senate all session.

Former Sen. Walt Helmick, D-Pocahontas, also was absent. Helmick strolled into the chamber shortly after the vote. He said he was attending a luncheon for his grandson when his colleagues voted.

The prescription-only bill failed by a single vote.

The drug industry and retailers lobbied strongly against the legislation, arguing that the prescription for pseudoephedrine would burden consumers and drive up health-care costs.

The deep-pocketed Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which represents the makers of over-the-counter drugs, had waged a media campaign that included newspaper, radio and Internet ads, along with automated "robo" phone calls urging West Virginians to call their state lawmakers to block the prescription bill. 

Legislators took a second swing at curbing meth labs during the 2012 legislative session.

At committee meetings, they heard stories about pharmacists and technicians at chain drugstores in West Virginia that received bonuses as a reward for selling large quantities of pseudoephedrine. Some pharmacies had cash registers specifically dedicated to pseudoephedrine sales because the cold product and meth-making ingredient was in such high demand.

But by that time, the lobbyists against the prescription requirement were even more mobilized. Drug trade groups based in Washington, D.C., sent their top lobbyists to West Virginia. The 2012 prescription-requirement bill didn't make it past the Senate's Health and Human Resources Committee.

Instead, lawmakers passed a bill that called for a "real-time" electronic tracking system designed to block illegal pseudoephedrine sales at pharmacies and reduce meth labs.

West Virginia law enforcement authorities say the system -- called NPLEx -- helps them charge and prosecute meth makers. But police say they're not using NPLEx to find labs, even though authorities have seized a record number of meth labs this year. Instead, they mostly rely on anonymous tips to locate labs.

Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, and Sen. Greg Tucker, D-Nicholas, have announced plans to introduce prescription legislation in the upcoming session, which starts next month.

They have a persuasive selling point for the bill this year: the prescription requirement would not apply to tamper-resistant pseudoephedrine products such as Nexafed and Zephrex-D. Criminals find it next to impossible to make meth from those medicines.

So cold and allergy sufferers would still be able to buy pseudoephedrine without a prescription. And meth cooks would have a difficult time securing their main meth-making ingredient.

Drug industry lobbyists have already started a campaign to oppose bills that would make pseudoephedrine prescription-only -- even with the tamper-resistant medicine exemption. The companies that manufacture Nexafed and Zephrex-D aren't members of the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, and their sales would cut into the profits of drug makers who belong to CHPA and make pseudoephedrine that can be cooked into meth.

"Now that the industry has come up with products that can't be converted to meth, there's no reason for us to continue to protect the products that can," Perdue said. "You put the meth cooks out of business."

Pulling the plug on single-ingredient pseduoephedrine drops sales

How much cold medicine is being diverted to make methamphetamine in West Virginia? No one knows for sure. But West Virginia's pseudoephedrine sales data strongly suggests that people are using large quantities of the cold medicine for something other than stuffed-up noses.

West Virginia's largest drugstore chain offers one example: In mid-October, Rite Aid stores across the state stopped selling cold medicines -- such as Sudafed 12 Hour and Sudafed 24 Hour -- that have pseudoephedrine as their only active ingredient. Meth cooks demand the single-ingredient medicines because they yield highly potent meth without byproducts.

The decision followed a Sunday Gazette-Mail story that revealed several Rite Aid stores were among the top sellers of pseudoephedrine products in the state.

After Rite Aids pulled single-ingredient Sudafed, the drugstore chain's overall pseudoephedrine sales in West Virginia plunged 37 percent between September and November. And last month's statewide sales dropped by half compared to January, according to NPLEx data.

Some Rite Aid pharmacists started addressing the problem before the chain drugstore's corporate office directive, sales data suggests. In March, for instance, the Rite Aid on Charleston's East End reported 826 pseudoephedrine transactions -- the third-highest-selling store in West Virginia that month. In September, the East End Rite Aid sold 17 boxes, and in October, just 14 boxes.

That particular Rite Aid store stopped selling pseudoephedrine products, except for Zephrex-D, the tamper-resistant version.

"It's my understanding from the Rite Aid pharmacists in charge that we talked to, they were given more leeway sometime earlier this year to say 'no,'" Goff said.

Another example of declining sales: After the first week of September, the South Charleston Walmart also stopped stocking single-ingredient Sudafed, according to NPLEx data. Pseudoephedrine sales at the Southridge Walmart dropped from 1,851 transactions in August to 212 transactions in October, an 88 percent decrease.

A spokeswoman at Walmart's corporate offices in Arkansas has denied that the Southridge Walmart changed its pseudoephedrine inventory, contradicting statements from employees at the store's pharmacy.

As sales dropped at the Southridge Walmart, customers seeking single-ingredient pseudoephedrine flocked to a small, independent pharmacy in rural Lincoln County. Meds 2 Go Express, located seven miles south of Walmart along Corridor G, suddenly became West Virginia's top-seller of pseudoephedrine in October, the NPLEx sales data shows. In response, the store's owner decided to stop selling all pseudoephedrine products on Nov. 1.

"As soon as Walmart stopped, we shot up, and we didn't know what to do," said Philip Michael, who owns Meds 2 Go. "People were waiting in line before the store opened. As a business owner, it's hard to turn that business away, but you have weigh what you know is right and what is wrong."

The South Charleston Walmart and Rite Aids throughout West Virginia still sell cold medicines - such as Claritin D, Advil Cold and Sinus, and Allegra-D, which combine pseudoephedrine with other ingredients. Meth makers don't typically buy the combination products because they include pain relievers and antihistamines.

Law enforcement authorities predict that meth cooks will buy more of the multi-ingredient cold medicines once all pharmacies stop selling Sudafed and other single-ingredient generic versions of the drug.

42 rooms, all shut down by meth

The Nov. 21 bust at Room 217 at the Nitro Economy Inn wasn't the first time police have descended on the motel after receiving a complaint about a meth lab operation.

Police seized a lab at the Economy Inn in 2009, and another lab last June.

After the June bust, state health officials ordered the motel's owners to shut down Room 306 and two-dozen other guest rooms in the same wing. The state gave the owners 30 days to clean up the meth mess. They never did.

The owners, Rohity and Nayona Megha, told the Gazette-Mail that Nitro code enforcement officers directed them to close rooms directly beside and below the meth-contaminated room - not the entire motel wing.

The Meghas said they couldn't afford to decontaminate the rooms. They plan to apply for $10,000 through the West Virginia Crime Victims Compensation Fund to pay for clean-up costs. Property owners across the state tapped the fund for more than $700,000 - a record amount -- during the past fiscal year. West Virginia is the only state in the U.S. that reimburses landlords for their meth lab cleaning bills.

Meanwhile, the Economy Inn remains shut down, all 42 rooms. After Nitro police arrested the two suspects, Boggs and Funk, Maj. Richardson helped tape up yellow warning signs on every door of every room at the budget motel. The signs read: "Do Not Occupy. Contaminated Property." He wanted to make sure there wasn't any confusion this time.

Richardson pointed to the second floor balcony outside Room 217. A child's car seat was propped below the window. Police left behind the car seat when they rushed the 18-month-old boy to the hospital. Officers also discovered toys and children's clothes scattered among materials used to manufacture meth.

"The parents make the decisions to do the things they want to do," Richardson said. "But the child's just there. They don't have a choice."

Reach Eric Eyre and David Gutman at ericeyre@wvgazette.com and david.gutman@wvvgazette.com, or 304-348-4869.


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