After leading the state in clandestine methamphetamine responses in 2010 with 20, Watauga County had the second highest number of busts in 2011, with 22.
Burke County led North Carolina with 34 busts, according to the State Bureau of Investigation.
While meth lab responses have risen in recent years, the statewide implementation of a new tracking system is already preventing sales of meth’s key ingredient, officials said.
Meth is an addictive stimulant that can be cheaply made using common ingredients such as those found in cold medicine and household chemicals. Recently, law enforcement officials have noted increased use of the one pot or “shake and bake” method, allowing manufacturers to make small batches using a two-liter plastic bottle.
Meth lab busts represent a small portion of drug charges in the county, however. According to Capt. Al Reed of the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office, the Sheriff’s Office Special Operations Unit recorded 685 total felony-level drug-related charges in 2011, with 117 total defendants. These do not include drug charges from the Patrol Unit.
Under a new law that took effect Jan. 1, North Carolina pharmacies are using an electronic tracking system called the National Precursor Log Exchange to log all purchases of products containing pseudoephedrine, an ingredient found in common cold medicines and the primary ingredient used to make meth.
In 2005, the state legislature passed a law limiting purchases of pseudoephedrine products to no more than two packages at once and no more than three packages within 30 days. The North Carolina Attorney General’s Office credited that law with reducing meth lab responses by 60 percent the following year.
But the system wasn’t universal, said Watauga County Sheriff Len Hagaman, allowing meth cooks to play the system by shopping at multiple stores and by crossing state lines. Hagaman said his office found that about two-thirds of pseudoephedrine purchases in the county were made by Tennessee residents.
The electronic NPLEx system links North Carolina with 18 states across the country, including South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia, a Jan. 12 press release from N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper stated. The system automatically alerts the retailer if the buyer has reached the legal limit for pseudoephedrine purchases.
“We’re using technology to stop meth makers from going from store to store or state to state to evade detection,” Cooper said in the release. “This electronic tracking system allows us to join forces with other states so we can be even more effective in our fight against meth labs.”
According to N.C. Department of Justice Public Information Officer Noelle Talley, the system is funded by the Consumer Health Care Products Association, with no costs to the state.
Hagaman said local pharmacies have implemented the new system and that NPLEx has already prevented pseudoephedrine purchases.
“It has helped. It looks like it’s helped quite a bit,” he said.
Lindsey Klee, a senior certified technician at Walgreens in Boone, said the store implemented the new system in November and that it has stopped several sales.
“We have had a few, yeah,” Klee said, adding that the system prints a sheet directing the buyer to visit a website to learn why the transaction was prevented.
Hagaman said law enforcement officials would like to see NPLEx in all 50 states, while some are pushing lawmakers to pass legislation requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine products.