CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia law enforcement agencies have seized 200 methamphetamine labs so far this year, setting a pace that's expected to shatter last year's record high.
Authorities shut down 288 meth labs in West Virginia last year, according to West Virginia State Police data. This year, they're on pace to seize about 570 labs. Between Jan. 1 and last week, officers have been discovering labs at a rate of 1.5 per day, double the number of meth lab busts at this time last year.
The increase comes despite a new law designed to curb the proliferation of meth labs.
"It's a true public health emergency," said Dr. Dan Foster, a former state senator who sponsored legislation designed to crack down on the clandestine labs, "and the problem now appears to be more widespread across the state."
While meth lab busts have spiked, the sizes of the clandestine labs have gotten smaller, said Mike Goff, a state Board of Pharmacy administrator and former State Police trooper who has tracked the rise of methamphetamine use in West Virginia in recent years.
"A lot of it is the 'shake and bake,' or 'one-pot' method," Goff said. "You used to have one guy cooking for 20 people. Now 10 of those people are cooking it for themselves."
The smaller meth-making operations are just as toxic as larger, traditional labs, Goff said. Criminals use soda pop bottles -- as many as eight to 10 at some sites -- to manufacture methamphetamine.
"With the plastic bottles, they're more of a fire hazard," Goff said. "It's a much simpler and quick process, but it's equally dangerous."
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, a cold and allergy medication that's also a key meth-making ingredient. The new law also limits the purchase of pseudoephedrine -- better known under the Sudafed brand name -- to three boxes per month and 20 per year.
Despite the tracking system, pseudoephedrine sales remain high. West Virginians have purchased about 40,000 boxes per month of the sinus medication so far this year, according to data from the state pharmacy board.
"Wow. That's a lot," said Don Perdue, a retired pharmacist and chairman of the West Virginia House Health and Human Resources Committee. "In my days, we were selling about three boxes a month at our pharmacy."
Starting in January, all West Virginia pharmacies started reporting to the tracking system -- called the National Precursor Log Exchange, or NPLEx. Last year, about 60 percent of the state's 625 pharmacies reported pseudoephedrine sales, Goff said.
The system "helps law enforcement put meth labs out of business," according to Appriss, the Louisville, Ky.-based company that operates NPLEx.
Foster said West Virginia's latest meth lab figures raise questions about the system's effectiveness.
"There's an apparent lack of benefit from the NPLEx system," said Foster, who unsuccessfully pushed for legislation that requires people to get a prescription before they could buy pseudoephedrine. "We're seeing a dramatic increase in labs, despite the institution of this new monitoring tool."