Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

July 8, 2012

Real-time tracking of cold and allergy medications set to begin by year’s end

CHARLESTON — Arriving at a pharmacy near you by New Year’s Day in West Virginia is real-time tracking of cold and allergy medications in the fight against the cooking of illegal methamphetamine.

Yet, for all the ballyhoo that has accompanied the new technology, the National Precursor Log Exchange, or NPLEx, won’t be a soldier in the war on prescription pill abuse in the southern coalbelt. Not for now, anyway.

Meth cookers are less prevalent in the southern region, one that is beset by an onslaught of pill abuse that authorities consider “an epidemic.”

“I’ve not been to a state yet where they didn’t ask that question,” says Jim Acquisto, vice president of Appriss, which developed the real-time system authorized now in 24 states to keep up with medicines that contain pseudoephedrine, a critical element in making meth.

“That’s a great question. Of course, there’s been thought given to that. Technically, anything can be tracked.”

At the same time, Acquisto replied at a news conference at the Capitol where NPLEx was outlined, privacy rules come into play with prescription medications.

Bridget Lambert, president of the West Virginia Retailers Association, acknowledged that the state Board of Pharmacy lacks real-time reporting of the narcotic pain killers that are flooding southern counties.

While real-time isn’t in the works, she said, the board’s tracking system is in the process of being updated.

In last winter’s legislative session, the primary focus was the use of NPLEx to track pseudoephedrine as an alternative to a failed effort to impose a prescription-only status for the 15 common household medications that contain the ingredient. This was successfully pushed by the Consumer Healthcare Products Association in a strenuous battle to avoid putting its medicines on a prescription-only basis.

“I don’t need to tell you about the meth problem,” Lambert said at a news conference.

“You don’t have to look little further than your local community.”

Under the plan advanced by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, and overwhelmingly enacted, limits were placed on the 15 cold and allergy medicines — 3.6 grams a day, 7.2 grams per month, and 48 grams within a year.

Since all such medications now are behind the counter, the consumer will notice no difference, Lambert pointed out.

“The main thing is the people who see a change will be the meth cooks, people who are going into pharmacies to purchase pseudoephedrine to divert it into a criminal activity,” she said.

“They will be logged at the point of sale and across state lines. Our pharmacies in West Virginia are glad to have this system in place.”

Already, some of the bigger names in the business — CVS, Kroger, KMart, and Rite-Aid — are doing this voluntarily, by reporting sales to NPLEx, Acquisto pointed out.

While West Virginia is the newest member of the NPLEx family, the circle could enlarge, since similar legislation is pending in Ohio and Kentucky.

A year ago, with 17 states in the system, Acquisto noted, NPLEx managed to block more than 2 million grams that likely would have gone into whipping up batches of meth.

“That medicine did not leave the store and get converted into meth,” Acquisto said.

In less than a quarter of a second, at the point-of-sale, the system knows if the consumer is exceeding the limits, or abusing some other rule, and police can get this data in about a minute via an e-mail.

“Police can sit in a parking lot of stores and see transactions before a person comes out of the door,” Acquisto said.

“They know what was purchased or attempted to be purchased. Many officers tell us that they’ll beat the person home once they get that e-mail and thereby prevent the actual manufacture of meth. All this is provided at no cost to government and law enforcement.”

Nor do pharmacies pay to participate. The CHPA is picking up the freight, as it has since the system appeared 18 years ago.

Literally, hundreds of police officers have relied on NPLEx to track down labs they didn’t know were in existence. And this means the numbers actually go up, not because more meth is being bought, but it simply means police find the labs by the real-time tracking, Acquisto said.

“That’s the front edge of the sword,” Acquisto said of real-time tracking.

“And the back edge is that law enforcement gets to see every single transaction as has been required by federal law since 2006. You can’t go across the street and purchase more than the limit as people can do when things are not tied together electronically.”

Could meth makers use deception by displaying IDs of friends at multiple drug stores to buy as much pseudoephedrine?

“It’s the same thing as buying alcohol or any other product that requires an ID,” Acquisto said.

“Any time you have to check an ID, it’s always up to the person to make sure it’s the right person in the picture they’re selling to.”

Carlos Gutierrez, the CHPA’s director of government affairs, termed pseudoephedrine “a safe and active ingredient,” used by 18 million households for cold and allergy relief.

“While the vast majority of citizens use these products for their intended use, there is a small criminal element out there that does, indeed, divert it into the manufacture of methamphetamine,” he said.

“We take this very seriously. We want to do all in our power to prevent the diversion of our products into meth manufacture.”

Gutierrez said NPLEx is “not an experiment,” but a reliable tool that has proven effective since its inception.

“It’s a logical step for West Virginia in their continuing fight against meth cooks,” he added.

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