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Kanawha County officials seek meth solution

By John Gibb

Guest speakers at the Kanawha County Meth Task Force meeting Thursday said they doubt the ability of electronic drug-tracking systems to stop the sale of medications with pseudoephedrine.

The Kanawha County Commission created the group, which is charged with looking for viable solutions to the county's meth epidemic.

State law requires all pharmacies to report the sale of medication containing pseudoephedrine to a national database called NPLEx. The mandate was part of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's 2012 substance abuse bill, and has been in effect since January.

Charleston Police Lt. Chad Napier said the system has contributed to a slight decline in the sale of medications with pseudoephedrine, but that a state law requiring a prescription for such medication would be more effective. He said a prescription-only mandate would significantly curtail meth labs.

Pseudoephedrine is a common ingredient in medication that treats stuffy noses and sinuses, but it's also a main ingredient in meth.

Keith Humphreys, a West Virginia native and psychiatry professor at Stanford University, also favors the prescription-only approach.

"The NPLEx electronic tracking system is ineffective," Humphreys said.

Jim Acquisto is vice president of Appriss, Inc., the company that makes NPLEx. He said NPLEx is vital in blocking sales of medicine with pseudoephedrine, which, in turn, decreases the number of meth labs in the state.

NPLEx tracks sales in real time. In theory, once someone reaches his or her box limit, the system alerts the cashier, who can block the next sale.

It alerts law enforcement via email when someone is blocked from buying medication with pseudoephedrine, Acquisto said.

But Napier said authorities sometimes lack the manpower to go after blocked individuals. Some buyers also sidestep the system with fake IDs. Others get surrogates to purchase the medicine for them, a process known as smurfing.

Less than 10 percent of sales have been blocked since the introduction of NPLEx at the start of the year.

Acquisto said once sales are blocked, law enforcement would be notified of who attempted to purchase the medication and can pursue an investigation.

He said he spoke to officers who claim they have been able to uncover a large percentage of meth labs as a result of using information provided by NPLEx.

Acquisto points to Drug Enforcement Administration statistics that indicate 11 of the 17 states that use NPLEx have significantly decreased lab numbers.

He argued that because many labs are never discovered and because some police departments never report the labs, most data is not accurate. Federal data is essentially at the mercy of state recording practices, he said.  

Humphreys cited a study Thursday that compared lab busts in Oregon and Kentucky. Oregon has a prescription-only law while Kentucky does not.

The study showed that in 2003, both states had nearly the same number of lab busts. In 2004, both states moved medications with pseudoephedrine behind the counter and required an ID to purchase the product.

Lab busts went down in both states after the law was enacted.

In 2006, Oregon created a law that made medicines with pseudoephedrine a prescription-only drug. Since then, lab busts have steadily decreased. In 2012, only seven lab busts were reported. After 2008, the year Kentucky implemented NPLEx, the state recorded a steady increase in sales of medicines with pseudoephedrine. In 2011, 1,233 meth busts were reported in Kentucky.  

Napier said by making medications with pseudoephedrine prescription-only, people would have to see a doctor and get prescribed the medication. He said it's rare for doctors today to prescribe these medicines, as there are other viable alternatives on the market.

Lynn Fruth, CEO of Fruth Pharmacy, was in the audience and spoke about tamper-resistant drugs. She said there are drugs on the market that cure the same symptoms as the medicines containing pseudoephedrine but are tamper-resistant, meaning they cannot be used for meth making.

Fruth said as more tamper-resistant drugs become available, she would eliminate medications with pseudoephedrine.

"By getting rid of these drugs that contain pseudoephedrine and replacing them with tamper-resistant ones, we are no longer part of the problem," Fruth said. "West Virginia can take the lead in this."

Fruth said the state could create legislation that would force doctors to prescribe tamper-resistant drugs. This would eliminate the main ingredient in meth making and cut down on the state's lab bust numbers.

The task force plans to meet again in October and is planning to schedule new guest speakers. Dan Foster, chairman of the task force, said he is looking to get state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey to attend the meeting.

He also hopes to get a representative to discuss tamper-resistant drugs and a state official from Mississippi to talk about how a prescription-only solution has fared in that state.

Contact writer John Gibb at or 304-248-1796.



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