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W.Va. meth lab busts rose 85 percent in 2013

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Law enforcement authorities seized 159 meth labs in Kanawha County last year, four times more than in any other West Virginia county, according to a State Police report released last week.

"It's an epidemic, a cancer and a scourge on this state," said Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper. "And I believe the numbers are much higher. Those are just the ones that got caught."

Statewide, meth lab busts increased to 533 from 288 in 2012. The sharp rise comes despite a new law designed to curb the proliferation in meth labs.

"Not only are the total numbers going up 85 percent, the problem is affecting more counties than ever before," said Dr. Dan Foster, who headed a Kanawha County task force that investigated the region's meth lab problem last fall.

Police discovered meth labs in 45 of West Virginia's 55 counties last year, according to the report.

Wood County had 36 meth labs, the second-highest total in the state, followed by Putnam County, with 28 labs, Upshur County, with 27, Mason County, with 21, Cabell County, with 20, and Greenbrier County, with 19.

Counties with more than a dozen labs each included Boone, Lewis, Lincoln, Jackson, Randolph, Nicholas and Barbour.

Delegate John Ellem, R-Wood, said meth labs frequently spark fires in Wood County.

"It seems like we average about one lab every week," he said, "and, sometimes, two a week."

Ellem supports legislation that would require a prescription for cold medications containing pseudoephedrine, a key meth-making ingredient. The bill exempts "tamper-resistant" pseudoephedrine products, such as Nexafed and Zephrex-D, that can't easily be converted to meth.

In December, the Walmart in Parkersburg sold the second-highest number of boxes of pseudoephedrine in West Virginia, while the Vienna Walmart sold the fourth-highest number of boxes, according to sales data from a tracking system called NPLEx. The CVS pharmacy in Parkersburg also was one of the state's top sellers of pseudoephedrine.

Ellem said meth cooks typically hire people -- known as "smurfers" -- to buy pseudoephedrine for them.

"Not only are people from Wood County buying from our stores, but even people from as far away as Kanawha County are coming up here, seeking more avenues for 'smurfing' and coming up to buy the product," Ellem said.

During the 2012 legislative session, state lawmakers passed Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's substance-abuse bill, which included a provision that requires statewide electronic tracking of pseudoephedrine. The new law also limits the purchase of the cold medication -- sold under brand names such as Sudafed and Claritin D -- to about three boxes a month and 20 boxes a year.

Delegate Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell, said meth labs aren't a statewide problem. Police found three or fewer meth labs in 24 counties, according to the State Police report. Meanwhile, Kanawha County, which has 10 percent of the state's total population, had nearly one of every three meth labs last year.

"It's a Kanawha County issue," Sobonya said. "I want to help Kanawha County, but look at all these counties [10] that have no meth labs."

Sobonya opposes legislation that would make pseudoephedrine medications prescription-only.

"This does not reduce meth deaths, and it does not reduce meth use," she said. "So why don't we as a Legislature want to help people get off meth?"

Ellem said he expects a battle over the legislation in the coming weeks. The bill's opponents say it would drive up health-care costs, inconvenience people and infringe on the rights of law-abiding citizens.

"I'm looking for a good debate over the bill," Ellem said. "I just don't accept that it's a freedom issue.

"Just because you don't agree with something, you can't raise it to the level that it's infringing on freedoms," he added. "We are, after all, talking about a cold medicine."

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


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