CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Rite Aid stores in West Virginia have stopped carrying several top-selling cold medications that are used to make methamphetamine illegally in clandestine labs.
The chain drugstore's decision follows a Charleston Gazette report that revealed Rite Aid stores in West Virginia were among the top sellers of medicines that contain pseudoephedrine, a key meth-making ingredient.
"As a member of the community and the leading drugstore chain in the state, Rite Aid remains committed to taking appropriate action to help address the methamphetamine problem in West Virginia while ensuring that we continue to serve patients with legitimate medical needs," said Ashley Flower, a Rite Aid spokeswoman.
Rite Aid recently stopped selling a handful of products -- including Sudafed 12 Hour and Sudafed 24 Hour -- that have pseudoephedrine as their only active ingredient. Meth cooks demand those medicines because they yield potent meth without byproducts.
Rite Aid stores still sell cold medications, such as Claritin-D and Allegra-D, which combine pseudoephedrine and other ingredients. Meth makers don't typically buy the combination products because they include antihistamines and pain relievers.
"You might end up with meth that gets you high and cures your headache," said Jason Grellner, vice president of the National Narcotics Officers Association.
Grellner said Rite Aid should be commended for its decision to stop carrying single-ingredient pseudoephedrine in West Virginia. He said he hopes the company expands the same policy nationwide.
Rite Aid has more than 100 stores in West Virginia.
"This is a huge stride forward for a chain store to get rid of sole-ingredient products," said Grellner, a Missouri-based narcotics detective and meth lab expert. "It will mean a lot less criminals will be going into Rite Aids."
Last month, the Gazette reported that Walmart, Rite Aid and CVS stores were selling the highest number of boxes of cold medications containing pseudoephedrine in West Virginia.
Three Rite Aid pharmacies -- two in Charleston and one in Belle -- were among the state's top 10 for pseudoephedrine sales, according to an electronic tracking system called NPLEx.
The data shows that sales can vary significantly, even within the same neighborhood. For instance, the Kanawha City Rite Aid store reported 926 pseudoephedrine transactions last August -- the third-highest number in West Virginia. A Kanawha City CVS pharmacy just four blocks east reported 303 transactions in August.
Grellner predicted that Rite Aid's pseudoephedrine sales would now decrease significantly across the state.
Last week, Charleston-area Rite Aid stores started posting signs about the policy change, which applies only to Rite Aid's West Virginia locations.
"Because Rite Aid cares about our community," the signs say, "we are stepping up the fight against methamphetamine abuse."
The sign adds that the stores "exclusively" carry Zephrex-D, a tamper-resistant cold medication that contains pseudoephedrine as its only ingredient. Meth cooks cannot make the illegal drug with Zephrex-D.
"We continue to explore ways to address this serious issue and this is one targeted approach that we believe is worth pursuing in West Virginia at this time," Flower said. "We will continue to monitor the situation and consider future actions if necessary."
House health committee Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne, said the signs are misleading. The signs imply that Rite Aid only sells tamper-resistant pseudoephedrine products.
"It's not accurate," said Perdue, a retired pharmacist. "It appears to suggest they don't have pseudoephedrine that can be diverted."
Pharmacies keep medications containing pseudoephedrine behind the counter. Customers must show a photo ID and sign a form to purchase the products.
Perdue and Sen. Greg Tucker, D-Nicholas, plan to introduce legislation in January that would require people to secure a prescription before they could buy pseudoephedrine.
West Virginia law enforcement agencies have seized more than 370 meth labs this year, a record number. Police say a prescription requirement for pseudoephedrine would lead to fewer meth labs.
Dr. Dan Foster, who heads a task force investigating Kanawha County's meth lab problem, said Rite Aid's decision not to sell single-ingredient Sudafed seemed to be a public relations ploy.
"This will only have value in significantly reducing meth labs if all the stores do it, and that's exceedingly unlikely," Foster said. "They're trying to say they're taking care of the [meth] problem, but it's a business plan. They'll do anything to make people believe they're doing something to keep from going prescription-only."
Flower said the company has no plans to stop selling pseudoephedrine products that include two or more ingredients.
"It is our understanding that it is harder to make methamphetamine from a combination product than a single-ingredient product," she said. "The continued availability of combination products will allow us to continue serving customers with legitimate medical needs."
Reach Eric Eyre at email@example.com