CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Since January, more than 150 police officers in West Virginia have tapped an electronic system that tracks the main ingredient used to make the drug methamphetamine, according to data presented to a Kanawha County meth task force Thursday.
Those officers used the system -- called NPLEx -- to search for information about suspected meth makers nearly 18,000 times, and 654 suspects were put on a "watch list."
The numbers show NPLEx is working -- helping police track down meth cooks, find clandestine labs and arrest criminals, said Jim Acquisto, whose company developed the tracking system used in West Virginia and 26 other states.
"It provides very valuable intelligence," Acquisto told task force members at a meeting Thursday in Charleston.
In recent months, national drug policy experts, Kanawha County law enforcement officials and state pharmacy board administrators have sharply criticized the electronic system that tracks purchases of products containing pseudoephedrine, a key meth-making ingredient.
Last year, Acquisto and others promised that NPLEx would help reduce the number of meth labs in West Virginia. This year, however, law enforcement agencies have reported a record number of meth lab busts.
Acquisto said police could use the "real-time" system to catch meth addicts and cooks just minutes after they purchase pseudoephedrine -- known under brand names such as Sudafed, Claritin-D and Alegra-D -- at pharmacies.
However, Mike Rutherford, Kanawha County's chief deputy sheriff, said his department doesn't have the time or money to conduct such operations.
"I don't have the manpower to sit in the parking lot and do that," said Rutherford, who serves on the task force.
Acquisto also presented a report to the panel that showed NPLEx has blocked the sale of 14,306 boxes of the cold medication used to make meth since January. The electronic system blocks sales when people try to exceed monthly and yearly limits set by state law.
Nearly 40 percent of all blocked sales happened in Kanawha County, even though Kanawha has 10 percent of the state's population. The county also had 20 percent of all pseudoephedrine sales in West Virginia during the past eight months.
Statewide, NPLEx has blocked 4 percent of all sales this year.
"They're able to stop folks before they get the pseudoephedrine to the lab," said Acquisto, vice president of government affairs for Appriss Inc.
Some task force members asked Acquisto if NPLEx -- which is funded by over-the-counter drug manufacturers -- shares customer purchase information with the pharmaceutical companies. The firms could use the sales data for marketing purposes.
State and federal laws prohibit that, Acquisto said.
"Nobody but law enforcement has access to the personal transaction data," he said.
Other task force members asked if Appriss is paid more money for increased pseudoephedrine sales.
Acquisto declined to answer specific questions about Appriss' contract with the drug manufacturers.
"If we block sales, we're not paid less," he said.
Carlos Gutierrez, who serves on the task force and represents the drug companies, said pseudoephedrine sales have declined in West Virginia and other states because of NPLEx.
"It's cutting down on our sales," he said.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's substance-abuse bill in 2012 mandated that West Virginia pharmacies report to the NPLEx tracking system.
That year and the year before, state lawmakers rejected bills that would have required a doctor's prescription to purchase the cold and allergy medicine that's also used to make meth.
On Thursday, Lt. Chad Napier, an investigator with the Charleston Police Department, said police officers respond to complaints about meth labs nearly every day.
Napier said the officers often discover children in homes where meth labs are set up.
"The problem is huge," he said. "My guys don't want to be out there in the middle of it."
Napier said he supports legislation that would require a prescription for pseudoephedrine. Meth lab incidents have declined significantly in some states, such as Oregon and Mississippi, which have enacted a prescription-only law.
"It's a solvable problem," Napier said. "Make it prescription-only, and you won't have meth labs."
Reach Eric Eyre at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4869.