CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — One recent day, a man walked into a local Rite-Aid and tried to purchase more than his legal limit of pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in the manufacture of crystal meth. Thanks to a tracking system used in pharmacies statewide, he walked away empty handed.
The man, who the West Virginia Board of Pharmacy asked to remain nameless, tried to purchase a 3.6-gram box of Claritin-D. But as soon as the store clerk rang up the box, databases at the National Precursor Log Exchange ran a search of the man's ID number and noticed he already had met his limit for the last 30 days.
The system, also known as NPLEx, blocked the transaction.
West Virginia law prohibits anyone from purchasing more than 3.6 grams per day, 7.2 grams per month and 48 grams per year, unless they have a prescription from a doctor. NPLEx keeps track of these limits, marking how many boxes of pseudoephedrine are purchased and how many of those purchases are blocked.
Our shopper had already purchased two 3.6 gram boxes in the last 30 days. But he was not deterred. He had the cashier try a 2.4 gram box of Claritin-D, with NPLEx again stopping the transaction.
The man then tried a 1.2 gram box. And he was blocked yet again.
Later that day, Mike Goff was able to see each of these transactions, the pharmacy where they took place, the shopper's name, address, date of birth and driver's license number, the store clerk's identification number, the brand of pseudoephedrine the shopper had attempted to purchase and even how many pills were in those boxes.
Those attempted purchases looked suspicious to Goff, a former state trooper who is now administrator of the West Virginia Board of Pharmacy's controlled substance monitoring program. So after a few clicks in NPLEx, he was able to see each time the man had purchased pseudoephedrine in the last few years.
Goff noticed the man had been buying pseudoephedrine at regular intervals since early summer. He usually bought the pills twice a month, always Claritin-D, always in 15-count boxes and always at the same local Rite-Aid.
Then Goff's suspicions disappeared.
"He's not a meth guy," he said. "I don't think he's a meth cook. He's too regular."
People who buy pseudoephedrine for illicit purposes, he explained, usually try to spread their purchases around, even though NPLEx tracks purchases in real time at pharmacies all over West Virginia.
He also pointed out the man usually purchased two boxes of Claritin-D a month, always in 15 count boxes. That means he probably was taking one pill every day, Goff said. The man was blocked because he showed up one day early to purchase his two-week supply.
"If someone's legitimately trying to buy Claritin-D, this makes sense," he said.
Goff found similar situations as he looked farther down the list of West Virginia's most-blocked pseudoephedrine purchasers. At first glance, it looked like these shoppers might be trying to break state law, but to Goff's trained eye, most appeared to be legitimate purchases.
And that's the shortcoming of NPLEx, Goff said. It's a robust tool for law enforcement, but it is only that. A tool.
West Virginia adopted NPLEx through a bill passed in the 2012 legislative session, although its use in state pharmacies only became mandatory Jan. 1. The system is used by 28 states nationwide.
NPLEx tracks the purchase of any non-prescription drug containing pseudoephedrine. Those are usually the cold and allergy drugs with "D'' in the name, like Claritin-D, Aleve-D Sinus and Cold, Allegra-D and Zyrtec-D.
The system collects a lot of information about those purchases, all of which is visible to law enforcement.
At its most basic level, NPLEx is a website, accessible from any computer or smartphone that can access the Internet. It requires users to log in, just like Facebook or Amazon.com.
Operation of the system is simple. There are several drop-down menus running along the top of the NPLEx home page, which allow users to create different kinds of reports.
In a few clicks, any police officer in the state can generate what NPLEx calls a "summary report."
The results look like a big spreadsheet. It contains a list of each West Virginia county, how many boxes of pseudoephedrine were purchased there, how many purchases were blocked and how many boxes were returned to stores.
Police also can generate reports of the most-blocked customers. These reports provide personal information about the purchaser, as well as information about which pharmacies they visited.
Officers can generate another report for an individual pharmacy, examining each pseudoephedrine purchase over a specific date range. This shows the date of each purchase, the name, date of birth, address and ID number of the purchaser, as well as information about the products purchased.
Police also can search for individual people's purchasing history, seeing every box of pseudoephedrine they purchased since NPLEx went online.
NPLEx allows officers to put a "watch" on individuals, too, so police are instantly notified when that person purchases pseudoephedrine at a West Virginia store.
"I can put all the local, usual suspects in here," Goff said.
There's something the system won't do, however. It cannot distinguish between a legitimate purchase and illegitimate one.
Goff said once, a guy was blocked 30 times in a month. Police went to check him out. But most of the time looking at records of blocks and purchases are very little help to police, he said.
"This system is a reactive tool, for the most part," he said. "You have to know a person's name to use it. You can't say 'Show me a meth cook.' It doesn't do that.
"This system's great to use if I know who to look for."
Goff said the system is most useful if police have already arrested someone suspected of manufacturing methamphetamine.
Officers can search NPLEx from laptops or smartphones, and can see a record of every recent pseudoephedrine purchase, return and block on the suspect's record.
Police also can look for people who might have purchased pseudoephedrine around the same time as the suspect, as a way to identify friends and conspirators.
Cpl. Jason Crane of the State Police said he has busted meth labs where several suspects were in the house but all claimed they did not know what was going on.
"They're all deaf, dumb and blind. Hold your eyes, hold your ears. Nobody knows how it got there," he said.
A quick search of the NPLEx system, however, quickly proved they were lying.
"You can take a look at pseudoephedrine purchases, and it's pretty blatant when you have a legitimate allergy user or a meth manufacturer," he said. "As an investigator, that's an important tool."
But Crane agrees with Goff, police must first know who they are looking for before going to NPLEx.
NPLEx's watch function allows police to keep track of suspected meth criminals who have not been arrested or were released on bond, but that, too, has loopholes. Goff said the savviest meth makers are careful to never exceed their lawful limits of pseudoephedrine.
"Sometimes you never find the main guys in the system at all," he said.
Crane said the careful meth cooks use "smurfs," people the cooks pay to go into drug stores and purchase pseudoephedrine in their stead.
"If you have a group of 15 addicts and one or two cooks, that's a pretty good supply to get you through the year. They have circumvented the system," he said.
Both Goff and Crane said one way to prevent meth makers from circumventing the system is to make pseudoephedrine a prescription-only drug.
Goff said if drugstores required a prescription before handing over pseudoephedrine-based drugs, meth makers or their smurfs would have to get an appointment with a doctor, sit in the waiting room, fake an illness and then hope the doctor would prescribe them pseudoephedrine and not one of the other decongestants available.
"There's too many hoops to jump through," he said.
Making pseudoephedrine a prescription-only drug would put an end to the NPLEx system, however.
Medical privacy laws prevent police from having unlimited access to prescription information. Records can be obtained with a warrant, but that would require police to get approval from a judge before delving into those records.
West Virginia does have a controlled substance monitoring program, which keeps track of painkillers and other often-abused drugs. Lawmakers could add pseudoephedrine to that system if it were made a prescription-only drug.
That database is only available to a select group of law enforcement personnel, however, and Goff said even then police only would be able to obtain individuals' prescription records with a warrant.
Information from: Charleston Daily Mail, http://www.dailymail.com