One recent day, a man walked into a local Rite-Aid and tried to purchase more than his legal limit of pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in the manufacture of crystal meth. Thanks to a tracking system used in pharmacies statewide, he walked away empty handed.
The man, who the West Virginia Board of Pharmacy asked remain nameless, tried to purchase a 3.6-gram box of Claritin-D. But as soon as the store clerk rang up the box, databases at the National Precursor Log Exchange ran a search of the man's ID number and noticed he already had met his limit for the last 30 days.
The system, also known as NPLEx, blocked the transaction.
West Virginia law prohibits anyone from purchasing more than 3.6 grams per day, 7.2 grams per month and 48 grams per year, unless they have a prescription from a doctor. NPLEx keeps track of these limits, marking how many boxes of pseudoephedrine are purchased and how many of those purchases are blocked.
Our shopper had already purchased two 3.6 gram boxes in the last 30 days. But he was not deterred. He had the cashier try a 2.4 gram box of Claritin-D, with NPLEx again stopping the transaction.
The man then tried a 1.2 gram box. And he was blocked yet again.
Later that day, Mike Goff was able to see each of these transactions, the pharmacy where they took place, the shopper's name, address, date of birth and driver's license number, the store clerk's identification number, the brand of pseudoephedrine the shopper had attempted to purchase and even how many pills were in those boxes.
Those attempted purchases looked suspicious to Goff, a former state trooper who is now administrator of the West Virginia Board of Pharmacy's controlled substance monitoring program. So after a few clicks in NPLEx, he was able to see each time the man had purchased pseudoephedrine in the last few years.
Goff noticed the man had been buying pseudoephedrine at regular intervals since early summer. He usually bought the pills twice a month, always Claritin-D, always in 15-count boxes and always at the same local Rite-Aid.
Then Goff's suspicions disappeared.
"He's not a meth guy," he said. "I don't think he's a meth cook. He's too regular."
People who buy pseudoephedrine for illicit purposes, he explained, usually try to spread their purchases around, even though NPLEx tracks purchases in real time at pharmacies all over West Virginia.
He also pointed out the man usually purchased two boxes of Claritin-D a month, always in 15 count boxes. That means he probably was taking one pill every day, Goff said. The man was blocked because he showed up one day early to purchase his two-week supply.
"If someone's legitimately trying to buy Claritin-D, this makes sense," he said.
Goff found similar situations as he looked farther down the list of West Virginia's most-blocked pseudoephedrine purchasers. At first glance, it looked like these shoppers might be trying to break state law, but to Goff's trained eye, most appeared to be legitimate purchases.
And that's the shortcoming of NPLEx, Goff said. It's a robust tool for law enforcement, but it is only that. A tool.
West Virginia adopted NPLEx through a bill passed in the 2012 legislative session, although its use in state pharmacies only became mandatory Jan. 1. The system is used by 28 states nationwide.
NPLEx tracks the purchase of any non-prescription drug containing pseudoephedrine. Those are usually the cold and allergy drugs with "D" in the name, like Claritin-D, Aleve-D Sinus and Cold, Allegra-D and Zyrtec-D.
The system collects a lot of information about those purchases, all of which is visible to law enforcement.
At its most basic level, NPLEx is a website, accessible from any computer or smartphone that can access the Internet. It requires users to log in, just like Facebook or Amazon.com.
Operation of the system is simple. There are several drop-down menus running along the top of the NPLEx homepage, which allow users to create different kinds of reports.
In a few clicks, any police officer in the state can generate what NPLEx calls a "summary report."
The results look like a big spreadsheet. It contains a list of each West Virginia county, how many boxes of pseudoephedrine were purchased there, how many purchases were blocked and how many boxes were returned to stores.
Police also can generate reports of the most-blocked customers. These reports provide personal information about the purchaser, as well as information about which pharmacies they visited.
Officers can generate another report for an individual pharmacy, examining each pseudoepherine purchase over a specific date range. This shows the date of each purchase, the name, date of birth, address and ID number of the purchaser, as well as information about the products purchased.
Police also can search for individual people's purchasing history, seeing every box of pseudoephedrine they purchased since NPLEx went online.
NPLEx allows officers to put a "watch" on individuals, too, so police are instantly notified when that person purchases pseudoephedrine at a West Virginia store.