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Police using meth ingredient tracker less

It was a system designed to help law enforcement officers nab criminals who buy cold pills that fuel methamphetamine labs.

But the use of the meth-ingredient tracker has dropped significantly over the past year in West Virginia.

The number of times officers have used the National Precursor Log Exchange, or NPLEx, to search for potential criminals has plunged from a high of 3,266 searches in May 2013 to 1,328 last month, a 60 percent drop.

Police officers in West Virginia actively using the electronic system peaked at 104 in April before dropping to 85 in June, according to monthly NPLEx usage reports obtained by the Gazette.

The falloff comes despite a push to train more officers to use the system, which tracks cold medications containing pseudoephedrine, a key meth-making ingredient.

“Utilization of NPLEx is going down. I’m just not sure why,” said Mike Goff, an administrator with the West Virginia Board of Pharmacy.

Law enforcement hiring freezes and a lack of funding for attacking the state’s meth lab problem may account, in part, for the waning use of NPLEx, said Lt. Chad Napier, a Charleston police detective and administrator with the Metropolitan Drug Enforcement Network Team.

“There’s manpower issues. You just don’t have the manpower to use it,” Napier said. “We don’t actively look for meth labs. We deal with meth labs when we find them.”

Also, a growing number of law enforcement officers are targeting the state’s heroin and prescription painkiller “epidemics,” Napier said.

“We’re trying to take care of other issues that are tearing West Virginia up,” he said. “That’s where we’re putting our resources.”

Bridget Lambert, who heads the West Virginia Retailers Association, said the slide in NPLEx use follows a decrease in meth labs statewide.

Last year, law enforcement agencies seized 530 meth labs, a record number. So far this year, officers have busted 207 of the clandestine labs.

“I’m wondering whether, long-term, other drugs are becoming more prevalent, and that’s what they’re giving their attention to because the labs are going down,” Lambert said. “There may not be a need for as much attention to the [NPLEx] system at this moment if they’re looking at other drugs. Our law enforcement officers direct their attention to where it’s needed most.”

NPLEx went online in January 2013, part of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s sweeping substance abuse bill state lawmakers passed the year before. The effectiveness of electronic tracking system has been debated ever since.

Drug industry lobbyists initially said NPLEx would help reduce the number of meth labs in West Virginia. But after lab numbers increased significantly during the first six months of last year, the lobbyists said NPLEx was helping police find meth labs.

Law enforcement authorities disputed those claims, but they acknowledged that officers were using NPLEx to shore up criminal complaints by proving meth lab operators had purchased pseudoephedrine pills.

“NPLEx is probably the best system out there for doing what it does, but it’s not going to stop your meth labs,” Napier said. “It’s not ever going to stop meth labs.”

According to the NPLEx monthly usage reports, the number of times police have logged in to the system dropped from a high of 596 in May 2013 to 294 last month — the fewest logins since all West Virginia pharmacies started reporting pseudoephedrine sales to NPLEx in January 2013.

On the other hand, officers are putting more people on a “watch list” of potential meth makers or “smurfers” — people hired to buy pseudoephedrine for meth cooks. In June, officers put 721 people on the watch list, up from about 400 last year. NPLEx alerts police officers via texts and emails when suspects buy cold medicines that contain pseudoephedrine.

Lambert said her retailers group, along with the National Association of Drug Investigators, the West Virginia Sheriffs Association and the West Virginia Municipal League, held NPLEx training seminars in Beckley, Bridgeport, Charleston and Vienna last fall. More than 60 police officers, state troopers, parole officers and sheriff’s deputies attended, she said.

“If officers are trained on it and understand what it can do, not only do they use it, they tell their friends how they’re using it,” Lambert said. “It’s a very simple system, but a very effective system.”

A fifth seminar will be held in Bluefield next week, with four additional training sessions scheduled later this year.

“We’re starting to ramp up the training again because we feel it’s vital that West Virginia law enforcement officers to have access to training to use the system,” she said. “They can follow, catch and prosecute the meth criminal with NPLEx. It’s amazing.”

A Kanawha County substance abuse task force plans to discuss the state’s meth lab problem during a meeting today at 1 p.m. in Charleston.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette, 304-348-4869 or follow @EricEyre on Twitter.

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