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Meth remains a danger for first responders

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State law enforcement officials are trying to find the best way to combat West Virginia's meth problem.

On Nov. 22, Sgt. Michael Baylous and Trooper L.W. Price with the West Virginia State Police discussed the growing problem of methamphetamine labs in the Mountain State.

Baylous said looking at the data from a quantitative and qualitative research aspect, meth labs seem to be centered in the Kanawha County area — but that's not necessarily true.

"It would be easy to jump to the conclusion a lot of them are centered around the Kanawha County area," he said. "It's more of a widespread problem than you might think."

Baylous said thanks to the public as well as confidential informants, troopers in the central part of the state were able to take about a month to focus in on just how large the problem was.

"Troopers (were) taken from regular duties to see what kind of results we'd find in a month," he said.

Focusing in on Troops 3 and 6, officers arrested more than two dozen people.

As a result of their efforts, police arrested 14 people throughout Webster, Pendleton, Randolph, Braxton and Webster counties. Two meth labs were found. Of those arrests, there were 28 felony charges, two misdemeanors and more than $1,000 in cash seized.

In Troop 6's area of Greenbrier, Raleigh, Fayette and Summers counties, 18 people were arrested resulting in 47 felonies. Nine meth labs were seized and three were discovered abandoned.

"We want to stress it doesn't mean we created a task force," Baylous said last month. "We just took troopers away from assigned daily duties."

Price said the most common lab seized during their efforts was the one pot method. About 345 one-pot or "shake and bake" methods were discovered in the past year alone, he said. 

As of Nov. 17, almost 500 meth labs were seized.

Baylous said in order to take care of the clean-up of these meth labs, troopers have to be educated in the dangers of the chemicals. He said although Kanawha County has the resources to teach troopers how to respond properly, other rural areas in the state aren't as lucky.

"It takes a lot more time and is more costly to address in rural areas," he said. "You can't take someone off the detachment and have them go into meth lab sites and address problems — there are hazards."

Dealing with meth repercussions

Police officers aren't the only people dealing with the deadly hazards of cooking dangerous chemicals.

Fire officials agree, responding to meth-related incidents can be a hazard for firefighters not used to the chemicals and how they might react when used improperly.

Mark Lambert, with the West Virginia Fire Marshal's Office, said fire laws dealing with meth tread on shaky ground. He said when a fire occurs from meth, the cause of the fire is determined to be accidental.

According to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, the number of meth labs seized throughout the country has gone up and down in the past several years.

The DEA reported in 2007 there were 6,858 meth labs seized; in 2008, there were 8,810; in 2009, there were 12,851; in 2011 there were 13,390 and in 2012 there were 11,210 meth labs found in the nation.

The numbers show the labs had previously gone up, while  in the last few years they have started to go down.

Taking a closer look at the numbers for West Virginia, there were: 2012: 59, 2011: 92, 2010: 207, 2009: 139, 2008: 116 and 2007: 111 meth busts.

In 2008, the U.S. government reported about 13 million people over the age of 12 had used meth — 529,000 of those being regular users. In 2007, 4.5 percent of American high school seniors and 4.1 percent of 10th graders reported using meth at least once in their life.

Meth is the most widely abused and most frequently produced synthetic drug in the nation according to the DEA.

The state's local fire departments deal with the repercussions of meth cookers on a daily basis. 

Capt. Tim Flinn with the Parkersburg Fire Department said meth users develop new ways of producing the drug, which usually involves fire or other chemicals in danger of exploding.

"The people using meth are going to extreme measures to get (the drug) and (don't realize) the dangers that they are exposed to," Flinn said. 

Banning meth-making materials

A new poll conducted by Mark Blankenship Enterprises and funded by the Consumer Healthcare Products Association showed 604 West Virginia voters indicated between Nov. 9 and 12 that they would oppose any law that would require all consumers to obtain a doctor's prescription before buying cold and allergy medicines that contain pseudophedrine.

A 65 percent majority said it would be somewhat or very inconvenient to obtain a prescription for those popular medicines.

An overwhelming majority of West Virginians, about 80 percent, said they support a separate proposal that bans criminals from purchasing pseudophedrine without a prescription for 10 years after being convicted of a drug-related crime.

Other key findings from the poll include nearly nine out of 10 people in the Mountain State who have read, seen or heard "quite a bit" or "some" about methamphetamine labs and meth use in the state; 56 perccent oppose prescription legislation while only 40 percent support it.

"The West Virginia findings are consistent with what we've seen across the country," said Scott Melville, president and chief executive officer of the CHPA. "The clear majority of law-abiding consumers oppose the precription-only approach because it leads to significant economic burdens produced by unnecessary time off work and additional copays. 

"Moreover, consumers understand that such restrictions are not an effective solution to address West Virgina's meth problem. Penalizing honest consumers for the crimes of a criminal minority will not solve the state's problems." 

Lawmakers look to reform

In a committee meeting last month, Dan Foster, a physician with the Kanawha County Substance Abuse Task Force and also a former senator from Kanawha County, spoke to lobbyists and lawmakers about the state's growing meth problem.

Foster said a team worked throughout the past several months to see what the best long-term solution for solving the state's drug problem could be. The team wanted to present its findings to state lawmakers to give them an idea of the reality of the problem by taking a look at the numbers. 

Among his list of suggestions, Foster presented policymakers with several reasons why they should work to change the laws about certain drugs commonly used in making meth. He said red flags should be put on people who want to buy materials commonly associated with making meth, including the drug pseudoephedrine. 

The task force also questioned the suggestion to make hydrocodone a Schedule II level of controlled substance, which also was recently recommended by the federal Food and Drug Administration.