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Narcotics experts suggest prescription for W.Va. meth lab problem

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A committee reviewing West Virginia's methamphetamine lab problem is looking across the state's borders for solutions.

On Wednesday, law enforcement officials from Kentucky and Tennessee told the West Virginia Intervention on Meth Committee that requiring a prescription for the cold medication pseudoephedrine, a key meth-making ingredient, would nearly wipe out the clandestine labs.

"Places that have done that have had a 90 percent drop," said Tommy Loving, a drug task force director in western Kentucky.

Another option: Change state law to lower West Virginia's yearly purchase limit for pseudoephedrine products, the narcotics officers suggested.

Last year, the number of meth labs found in Kentucky dropped by 16 percent. In July 2012, a new Kentucky law took effect that limited the amount of pseudoephedrine a person can purchase without a prescription to 24 grams, or about 10 boxes, per year. West Virginia law allows pharmacies to sell twice the number of boxes to customers each year.

Loving and Dan Smoot, who directs a drug task force in eastern Kentucky called Operation Unite, also criticized an electronic system that tracks pseudoephedrine sales in West Virginia, Kentucky and two dozen other states. The system - called NPLEx - blocks people from purchasing the cold and allergy medication when they try to exceed monthly and yearly limits set by individual state laws.

The system's developers say NPLEx keeps pseudoephedrine out of the hands of criminals, and helps police catch meth makers and find the illegal labs.

"We thought it was going to be the savior," Smoot said. "But it's pretty marginal what it does for you in finding labs."

Loving and Smoot said the "real-time" tracking system has other drawbacks. Because NPLEx blocks sales, police no longer determine who's breaking the law by exceeding purchase limits, they said.

"It enables the pharmacies to sell the maximum amount to every person who walks through the door," Loving said. "It stops people from breaking the legal limit. It protects them."

Winchester, Tenn., Police Chief Dennis Young told the committee that his city passed an ordinance that required a prescription for pseudoephedrine - sold under brand names such as Claritin-D and Sudafed. 

Since May, the number of meth labs has dropped by 70 percent, Young said. Pharmacists and people who use pseudoephedrine for medical reasons haven't complained about the new requirement, he said.

"It has been a wonderful success," Young said. 

State lawmakers have twice introduced legislation - in 2011 and 2012 - to make pseudoephedrine prescription-only. But legislators rejected the bills after drug industry representatives and retailers lobbied against the proposals.

Members of the House and Senate have announced plans to introduce similar bills during the upcoming legislative session, which starts in January.

The Consumer Healthcare Products Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group, has said it would oppose requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine and lowering purchase limits for the drug.

The WV Intervention on Meth Committee next meets Oct. 23 at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.

A separate Kanawha County task force also is examining the area's meth problem.

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


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