CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Sales of a common cold and allergy medication could be linked to West Virginia's sharp increase in the number of methamphetamine labs seized this year, according to members of a group investigating the state's meth problem.
Kanawha County pharmacies have sold more than 52,000 boxes of pseudoephedrine so far this year, the highest per-capita sales rate in West Virginia.
Kanawha also has reported eight times as many meth lab busts this year than any other county in the state.
Nicholas County had the next highest pseudoephedrine sales rate, followed by Putnam, Wood, Harrison and Wetzel counties.
"The top counties are the 'Who's Who' of meth labs," said Mike Goff, a former West Virginia State Police trooper who now works for the state Board of Pharmacy. "The issue is: We know a lot of [pseudoephedrine] is being diverted."
The sales figures were presented last week at a meeting led by the Kanawha Coalition for Community Health Improvement. State lawmakers, law enforcement officers, paramedics, health officials and pharmacists sit on the committee that examines West Virginia's meth epidemic.
Kanawha County's pseudoephedrine sales were twice the state average, according to Pharmacy Board data.
Kanawha has 10 percent of the state's population, but its pharmacies sold 22 percent of the total number of boxes of the nonprescription drug sold statewide since January.
"Kanawha County sold more than a quarter of a box per person," Goff said.
Kanawha law enforcement has reported 56 percent of all meth labs seized in West Virginia so far this year.
In January, West Virginia started using an electronic tracking system designed to curb sales of pseudoephedrine. The computerized National Precursor Log Exchange, or NPLEx, has blocked sales of nearly 10,000 boxes of pseudoephedrine statewide from would-be buyers who exceeded new monthly and yearly purchasing limits, according to Pharmacy Board data.
In Kanawha County alone, NPLEx blocked the sales of almost 4,000 boxes of the cold medication that's used to manufacture meth.
West Virginia adopted the tracking system as part of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's substance-abuse legislation in 2012.
Earlier this year, the Louisville company that developed NPLEx said the system was helping West Virginia officers shut down meth labs, leading to a significant increase in clandestine lab seizures across the state.
However, Mike Rutherford, chief deputy at the Kanawha County Sheriff's Department, said most labs are found by road patrols, from tips and through investigations of other crimes -- not because of NPLEx. Meth makers hire "smurfers" to buy pseudoephedrine legally and subvert the tracking system, he said.
"We have not found any meth labs I'm aware of through NPLEx," said Rutherford, a former Kanawha sheriff whose brother, Johnny, is now sheriff. "To me, NPLEx is worthless."
Statewide, police agencies have reported more than 300 meth lab busts since January. West Virginia had 288 labs seized in 2012.
"Meth is the most addictive drug on the planet," said Delegate Tom Azinger, R-Wood, who's serving on the panel examining the state's meth problem.
More people are now making methamphetamine in smaller "shake and bake" mobile labs, according to police reports.
"They'll carry it around in backpacks," said Delegate John Ellem, R-Wood, a Parkersburg lawyer who's also serving on the meth study group.
Kanawha-Charleston Health Department officials said criminals often manufacture meth in rental cars and at local hotels, which must pay clean-up costs.
"There has been a major economic hit to the local hotels here," said Anita Ray, the health department's environmental director. "It's a real economic problem that needs to be brought to the forefront."
West Virginia lawmakers have twice introduced legislation -- in 2011 and 2012 -- to require people to get a doctor's prescription to buy pseudoephedrine, often sold under the Sudafed brand name. Legislators rejected the bills after drug industry representatives lobbied against the proposals.
Oregon and Mississippi are the only states that mandate prescriptions to purchase pseudoephedrine. In West Virginia, pharmacies keep the medication behind the counter, and customers must show a photo identification to buy it.
Two weeks ago, House Health and Human Resources Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne, asked Attorney General Patrick Morrisey to investigate how much pseudoephedrine is being diverted to manufacture methamphetamine.
Perdue also asked Morrisey to take legal action against any drug companies "responsible for engaging in that activity in the knowledge that such sales accrues to the benefit of malefactors," according to a letter sent to the attorney general.
Members of the meth study group said the addictive drug destroys families and puts the lives of children, firefighters, police officers and paramedics in danger.
"It's a public health hazard," said Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.
Reach Eric Eyre at email@example.com or 304-348-4869.