New Law's Anti-Meth Strategies Will Be Tested

The Herald-Dispatch

West Virginia's new state law aimed at preventing people from using cold remedies illegally to make methamphetamine is likely to face its toughest test in the county where the law was created.

A multi-state computer system that monitors the sale of cold remedies containing pseudoephedrine, which is used to make meth, shows that four pharmacies in Kanawha County top the state in the sale of those cold remedies, according to a report by The Associated Press. And apparently not by just a little bit. The pharmacies sell six to seven times as much pseudoephedrine products as pharmacies of similar size elsewhere in the state.

A lot of cold and allergy sufferers there? Crime data would suggest otherwise. West Virginia State Police reports that nearly half of the 229 illegal meth labs uncovered by law enforcement agencies in the state last year were in Kanawha County. That county also is home to 23 of the 65 labs found between Jan. 1 and earlier this month, according to the AP report.

Nearby counties also are seeing more meth activity. In the last half of March, labs were busted in Barboursville, Ona and Culloden in Cabell County. Also in March, a well-publicized case occurred in Mason County, at the home where two boys were reported missing but later found.

Part of the substance-abuse law passed by the Legislature in March and signed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on Thursday strives to attack the production of methamphetamine. It places smaller limits on how much pseudoephedrine-containing medicines people can buy daily, monthly and annually. It also requires that West Virginia participates in a tracking system pushed by the retailing industry and used in at least 19 states to monitor purchases.

That approach has its share of skeptics, who say those intent on producing meth will simply employ more people to purchase the allowed quantities of the medicines, a practice called "smurfing." And law enforcement agencies acknowledge that it may do little on its own to curb meth production. But they do see how the information will provide them leads to investigate. If authorities can make good use of that information, perhaps the law will make a dent. In any case, tracking how will the tracking system aids police will be important, once the monitoring database is in effect.

Already, though, the information from the system suggests that manufacturers and retailers should play a bigger role in trying to tackle this problem. Although the Kanawha County pharmacies that sell high volumes of the cold remedies are breaking no law, the magnitude of their sales would signal that a good portion of those medicines are being diverted for illegal use.

The same goes for manufacturers and distributors of the medicines. Clearly, they must track their sales of these medicines, and any extraordinary volume at a particular store should set off alarm bells.

Regarding a separate substance abuse problem, that of powerful prescription pain pills, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has started taking a close look at the role of distributors. It recently accused Cardinal Health, a Fortune 500 company with $103 billion in revenue, of endangering the public by selling excessive amounts of oxycodone to retailers in Florida. It suspended the company's sale of pain pills to two pharmacies and likewise blocked the two pharmacies from selling them.

Perhaps it is time for the same approach to occur regarding cold medicines when the volume of sales are clearly out of step with the norm.