Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

WV State News

August 9, 2013

West Virginia lawmaker wants pseudoephedrine as ‘prescription only’

CHARLESTON — Given a dramatic jump in meth lab seizures across West Virginia, from populous counties to rural ones, Delegate John Ellem says the time has come to put pseudoephedrine on a “prescription only” basis.

Come January, the Wood County Republican says he intends to offer such a bill for the third time in his legislative career.

Statistics bear out the grim reality that the National Prescursor Log Exchange, or NPLEx, the electronic tracking system on sales of 15 cold and allergy medications that contain the critical element for making meth, isn’t stopping the illegal drug menace, say Ellem and other backers of a prescription bill.

In his home county, police have raided 21 meth labs in the first six months of this year.

All told, authorities have conducted 332 busts so far, with Kanawha County far above all others with 103.

Southern West Virginia, known for its prescription pain killer scourge, certainly hasn’t been immune.

Greenbrier County witnessed 11 lab raids, while five occurred in both Raleigh and Nicholas counties. Even rural settings such as Upshur and Boone saw 10 and 11, respectively.

“About every week, I’m seeing a meth bust,” Ellem said Friday.

“It’s a terrible drug.”

Lawmakers hiked the penalties about a decade ago, but Ellem says this approach simply isn’t the answer.

“It’s so addictive, you don’t care,” the attorney said.

“You can’t think through to what the penalty would be or what will happen to your family or your kids or your future.”

Ellem teamed with the late Delegate Larry Border, also R-Wood, a few years ago to produce the first “prescription only” proposal, only to see it die in the Senate on a rare tie vote.

 Last year, a second effort was made, and a compromise was reached, abandoning the need for a prescription, but imposing limits on how much a consumer could buy — 3.6 grams per day, 7.2 a month and 48 grams a year.

“You’re just seeing no end in sight to the number of labs,” Ellem said.

“We don’t have any illusion we’re going to eliminate meth use and users like this. One of the primary goals of the bill is to get at the labs, which are pretty expensive to clean up. One case I’m familiar with was a lab in a garage that allegedly started a fire.”

Not only is it costly to clean up a lab, but first responders face the prospect of contamination, he pointed out.

Border became interested in the pseudoephedrine issue when he noticed that many customers came into his pharmacy with out of town licenses to buy small packages, often only a few minutes apart — evidence of “smurfing,” or the use of multiple purchases.

“Prescription-only goes a long way toward eliminating that because you put the doctor in there as an additional step,” Ellem said.

Some have questioned the wisdom of a prescription law, pointing out that painkillers are abused daily in southern counties.

But unlike pain, which can be feigned and not easily disproved, Ellem said, it’s much simpler for a physician to check out a patient’s sinuses to see if there is indeed a cold or allergy problem that would require a pseudoephedrine-based medication.

Besides, says Ellem, the profit motive simply isn’t the same with meth as it is with narcotic pain killers.

In defense of NPLEx, the West Virginia Retailers Association this week said figures kept by the state Board of Pharmacy showed the system blocked more than 9,900 boxes of such medicines from being sold, keeping some 26,000 grams from potentially winding up in meth labs.

Ellem, however, along with House Health and Human Resources Chairman Don Perdue D-Wayne, point to the rise in meth labs police have uncovered in six months this year.

“The smurfers are getting around it in dealing with NPLEx,” Ellem said.

“And the states that have that have seen no slow down in meth labs. We now have NPLEx, but I see no curve.”

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