Product may aid W.Va. against meth

By LAWRENCE MESSINA

Associated Press

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia lawmakers are hoping they’ve found a new weapon in the fight against methamphetamine labs: a way to administer cold remedies so a key ingredient cannot be extracted to make the illegal drug.

Legislators have begun looking at the product called Tarex as they debate measures meant to limit access to medicines that contain pseudoephedrine. A bill heading toward a House of Delegates vote would bar individuals from buying more than 7.5 grams of these cold remedies per month, or more than 24 grams in a year. West Virginia would also join a multi-state computer system that tracks pseudoephedrine sales under the legislation, which was initially proposed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

But with the legislative session ending Saturday, news of this alternative delivery system for pseudoephedrine likely arrives too late to become part of the pending measure.

“It’s certainly altered the discussion a bit, in terms of what the situation may be like a year or two from now,” said Sen. Dan Foster, D-Kanawha and a physician. “But we think it’s important that we move forward and do something in the meantime.”

The ongoing debate over combating meth has also revealed that Kanawha County leads the state both in purchases of these cold remedies and in meth labs busted by the State Police. A number of West Virginia pharmacies already use the multi-state tracking system. Just 35 pharmacies in Kanawha County, the state’s most populous and home to the state capital, account for nearly one-third of the pseudoephedrine sales tracked by the National Precursor Log Exchange, or NPLex, according to State Police figures.

But Missouri has led the nation in meth lab busts for the last 10 years, said Det. Sgt. Jason Grellner, the head of the Franklin County Narcotics Enforcement Unit. Grellner’s unit found 110 meth labs in that Missouri County last year, the same number busted by the State Police in Kanawha County. Grellner has begun sharing word of Tarex, being developed by the St. Louis-based Highland Pharmaceuticals.

“This product is a game-changer for our state, the nation and possibly the world,” Grellner told The Associated Press on Thursday.

Grellner said the Tarex version of cold remedies resembles a wax ball. In this form, patients can still ingest the pseudoephedrine but very little of it can be diverted for meth lab use, he said.

“I’ve tested it myself,” Grellner said. “Even if you can extract any, the amount of these that you would need to extract enough to be of any use to anyone is astronomical.”

Highland makes “nontraditional and innovative delivery systems” for oral drugs taken both by people and animals, according to its website. A company spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday. Foster says he’s looked at the initial testing, and finds the results encouraging.

“It’s reassuring to me that there’s an excellent chance that it will be extremely difficult to make methamphetamine,” Foster said. “If that’s so, then indeed it’s a game-changer.”

Foster has advocated stricter purchase limits for pseudoephedrine products, which are now sold from behind the pharmacy counter and require identification. Grellner said Missouri shares West Virginia’s current 30-day limit of 9 grams, and sees little value in such caps. Meth lab operators engage in “smurfing,” or hiring people to buy these cold remedies to avoid hitting these purchase limits themselves, law enforcement officials say.

“All those do is involve more people in the illegal activity and drive up the black market price,” Grellner said.

Grellner is also critical of NPLex, which Missouri also uses. It’s only helpful after pseudoephedrine has been diverted by a meth lab. Franklin County has seen meth lab busts rise since his state adopted the system.

“A crime has to be committed, and then you go to the database and try to identify a suspect,” Grellner said. “It’s 100 percent reactive.”

Grellner finds more promise in the ordinances adopted by 63 Missouri communities that require a prescription for pseudoephedrine. Those areas with this law on the books the longest have seen meth lab incidents drop by 50 percent or more, Grellner said. Foster has advocated a prescription-only approach for the pending West Virginia legislation, without success.

“I hope that in the long term, we either go to prescription-only or find that this product is able to do what we’ve not been able to do,” Foster said.

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Follow Lawrence Messina at http://twitter.com/lmessina

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