Wood 2nd in W.Va. meth lab seizures

PARKERSBURG – Methamphetamine lab seizure numbers jumped by 85 percent in West Virginia in 2013, officials said.

The drug making labs were discovered in 45 of the 55 counties in West Virginia in 2013, authorities said. All told, 533 meth labs were seized in 2013, compared with 288 in 2012, according to a West Virginia State Police report.

Wood County came in second in the number of meth lab seizures. The report says that 36 meth labs were found in Wood County in 2013, but Parkersburg Police Chief Joe Martin says “the final number was more like 40.”

Only Kanawha County beat out Wood in the 2013 seizure race, with 159 meth labs discovered within county limits, the report says.

“If the cook (at a meth lab) is done incorrectly or a component is moved at the wrong time, disaster can happen,” Martin said.

With meth labs being portable enough to be hidden in a moving vehicle, the thought of the common flash fires or explosions from moving a component at the wrong time should be a concern of everyone, he said.

When officers are faced with cleaning up a meth lab scene, they are provided with protective gear to keep them safe, Martin said. Several of the components used in making meth turn into a dangerous vapor when they are heated, capable of burning and scarring the lungs. Unsuspecting first responders, police officers and even public sanitation workers often breathe these fumes in without realizing it, Martin said.

The Parkersburg Fire Department constantly updates its staff on how to properly deal with suspected meth scenes, said Capt. Tim Flinn.

“There is a lot of money and hours used for meth-related calls,” Flinn said. “Even when there is not a fire, sometimes we are requested as a decontamination unit for all persons who may be exposed.”

The long-term effects on firefighting equipment exposed to meth-related fires are still unknown, Flinn said, adding Parkersburg firefighter-paramedic Mike Bartenschlag has provided guidelines on responding to meth incidents. Flinn said that meth-related fires are sometimes listed as accidental or undermined causes pending investigation.

Law enforcement has supported legislation that would require a prescription for cold medications containing pseudoephedrine, which is one of the primary ingredients in meth. Such a bill, which failed last year, was passed out of the West Virginia Senate Committee on Health last Tuesday.

This bill exempts “tamper resistant” pseudoephedrine products such as Nexafed and Zephrex-D because they can’t easily be converted to meth. If approved, West Virginia will become the first state to make pseudoephedrines a Schedule IV prescription drug while allowing exemptions for low yielding over-the-counter medication.

Delegate John Ellem, R-Wood, supports this legislation.

“Meth is a huge problem in Wood, Kanawha and other counties,” he said. “Even a small county like Upshur has problems with it,” he said.

Upshur County had 27 meth lab busts in 2013, the State Police report said.

After doing research on the two states that have already turned pseudoephedrine into a prescription-only drug, Mississippi and Oregon, Ellem said, “I am convinced that this is the only way to go.”

The National Precursor Log Exchange system, used by West Virginia and 28 other states to keep track of who buys pseudoephedrine and how much they purchase, is not working as well as it should, he said. The NPLEx system limits the purchase of the cold medication to about three boxes a month, with a total of 20 boxes a year.

At the current time, police can search the NPLEx system without reasonable suspicion, and are able to monitor who purchases the tracked medications within a three-hour period, which is when the majority of meth producer mass purchases usually take place.

If this legislation is passed, police will require reasonable suspicion to access the information on purchases of these drugs, officials said.

However, legislators recently heard from law enforcement officials from Kanawha County during a hearing in Charleston that they have not busted one meth lab in Kanawha County as a result of this tracking system, said Delegate Tom Azinger, R-Wood.

Azinger has been advocating for the last few years to make pseudoephedrine available by prescription only. He has given presentations at various city and county government venues on his argument that making pseudoephedrine available by prescription will cut down the number of meth labs throughout the state.

He has seen the statistics statewide and knows that Parkersburg had a meth lab-related fire within the last couple of weeks.

“To me it is a no-brainer,” he said of the need to pass the proposed legislation.

Azinger said he has talked about the matter with law enforcement officials in West Virginia and other states.

“(In Oregon), having it available only through prescriptions has worked wonders out there,” he said of the drop in meth labs int that state, adding he has seen similar results in Mississippi.

More areas are seeing property damage from meth lab operations. The average cost of cleaning up a meth lab is between $12,000 and $17,000 and there are now businesses that specialize in it.

“Meth is a young person’s drug,” Azinger said. “It is cheap to make and they make it in places where there are usually children.”

An argument made by many who oppose the legislation has been that they will have to incur additional expense in setting up an office visit with a doctor to get the prescription.

“If you are a patient and they know you, most doctors will call a prescription in for you,” Azinger said.

Ellem referred to the argument that the prescription-only method will prevent seniors and the handicapped from obtaining cold medicine “a red-herring argument created by the pharmaceutical industry.”

“If you really need pseudoephedrine for your condition, you should be under a doctor’s supervision anyway,” Ellem said. “The drug can have serious side effects.”

Martin and Flinn support the legislation that would make pseudoephedrine a prescription-only medication.