CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia law enforcement agencies have seized 200 methamphetamine labs so far this year, setting a pace that's expected to shatter last year's record high.
Authorities shut down 288 meth labs in West Virginia last year, according to West Virginia State Police data. This year, they're on pace to seize about 570 labs. Between Jan. 1 and last week, officers have been discovering labs at a rate of 1.5 per day, double the number of meth lab busts at this time last year.
The increase comes despite a new law designed to curb the proliferation of meth labs.
"It's a true public health emergency," said Dr. Dan Foster, a former state senator who sponsored legislation designed to crack down on the clandestine labs, "and the problem now appears to be more widespread across the state."
While meth lab busts have spiked, the sizes of the clandestine labs have gotten smaller, said Mike Goff, a state Board of Pharmacy administrator and former State Police trooper who has tracked the rise of methamphetamine use in West Virginia in recent years.
"A lot of it is the 'shake and bake,' or 'one-pot' method," Goff said. "You used to have one guy cooking for 20 people. Now 10 of those people are cooking it for themselves."
The smaller meth-making operations are just as toxic as larger, traditional labs, Goff said. Criminals use soda pop bottles -- as many as eight to 10 at some sites -- to manufacture methamphetamine.
"With the plastic bottles, they're more of a fire hazard," Goff said. "It's a much simpler and quick process, but it's equally dangerous."
During the 2012 legislative session, state lawmakers passed Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's substance-abuse bill, which included a provision that requires statewide electronic tracking of pseudoephedrine, a cold and allergy medication that's also a key meth-making ingredient. The new law also limits the purchase of pseudoephedrine -- better known under the Sudafed brand name -- to three boxes per month and 20 per year.
Despite the tracking system, pseudoephedrine sales remain high. West Virginians have purchased about 40,000 boxes per month of the sinus medication so far this year, according to data from the state pharmacy board.
"Wow. That's a lot," said Don Perdue, a retired pharmacist and chairman of the West Virginia House Health and Human Resources Committee. "In my days, we were selling about three boxes a month at our pharmacy."
Starting in January, all West Virginia pharmacies started reporting to the tracking system -- called the National Precursor Log Exchange, or NPLEx. Last year, about 60 percent of the state's 625 pharmacies reported pseudoephedrine sales, Goff said.
The system "helps law enforcement put meth labs out of business," according to Appriss, the Louisville, Ky.-based company that operates NPLEx.
Foster said West Virginia's latest meth lab figures raise questions about the system's effectiveness.
"There's an apparent lack of benefit from the NPLEx system," said Foster, who unsuccessfully pushed for legislation that requires people to get a prescription before they could buy pseudoephedrine. "We're seeing a dramatic increase in labs, despite the institution of this new monitoring tool."
However, Jim Acquisto, an executive with Appriss, said NPLEx is helping law enforcement agencies find and shut down meth labs, leading to the sharp increase in lab seizures. West Virginia authorities have requested more than 10,000 searches of the NPLEx system since January, Acquisto said.
"Now that they're able to see all of the transactions, they're able to identify more of the labs that were already there," said Acquisto, vice president of government affairs at Appriss. "It's an unprecedented way of finding everybody who's buying pseudoephedrine. Of course you're going to find more bad guys."
Acquisto said the same thing would happen if the state gave every police officer a radar gun -- speeding tickets would increase, even though the number of drivers exceeding the speed limit didn't change.
Twenty-five states, including West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky, have adopted NPLEx.
"We're giving law enforcement a tool so they can detect things better and respond," Acquisto said.
Foster said methamphetamine makers pay acquaintances to buy pseudoephedrine at retail pharmacies, circumventing monthly and yearly limits on purchases of the cold medication. NPLEx blocks sales when purchasers reach the monthly or yearly limit under the law.
"They just get different people or fake IDs," Foster said.
With many West Virginians out of work, meth makers don't have too much trouble finding people to hire and buy pseudoephedrine at multiple pharmacies, Perdue said.
"It's a cottage industry," Perdue said, "and they're buying it legally."
Acquisto said NPLEx helps police officers identify those criminals -- called "smurfers."
"There's no way you would have known who they were before," he said. "There's no way to know it was even happening."
Between 2004 and 2012, Kanawha County law enforcement agencies seized 235 meth labs -- the highest number in West Virginia, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration's National Clandestine Lab Register. Only four states had counties with more meth lab busts.
Perdue said more West Virginians are using meth because it's cheap, highly addictive and easy to make.
"You can by everything you need at Walmart and make it in the parking lot," Perdue said. "It's a moneymaker, for people who make enough of it."
Reach Eric Eyre at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4869.