After prodding by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, CVS pharmacy stores in West Virginia have stopped selling a popular cold medication that criminals use to make illegal methamphetamine.
CVS, with 50 stores across the state, no longer sells cold medicines that solely contain pseudoephedrine, a key meth-making ingredient.
Meth cooks demand those cold and allergy pills — mostly sold under the Sudafed brand name — because they yield potent meth without byproducts.
“CVS’s commitment to terminating local sales of single-ingredient pseudoephedrine products will undoubtedly help curb the growth of meth labs and meth abuse,” said Manchin, D-W.Va., who pressed CVS executives to make the inventory change over the past several months.
CVS’s single-ingredient pseudoephedrine sales ban also extends to another 40 stores within 15 miles of West Virginia’s border — stores in Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, said Mike DeAngelis, a CVS spokesman.
“We took this step as part of our long-standing commitment to assuring that [pseudoephedrine] products are purchased at our stores for only legitimate medical purposes,” DeAngelis said.
Also, Walgreens notified Manchin’s office last week that the drugstore chain plans to stop carrying single-ingredient pseudoephedrine products in West Virginia. A Walgreens spokesman confirmed the change, and said the company was “still working out details.” Walgreens has 17 stores in the state.
Last year, West Virginia law enforcement agencies seized 530 meth labs, a record number. Police have busted 207 labs statewide so far this year.
In 2013, CVS drugstores sold more than 51,000 boxes of cold medications with pseudoephedrine in West Virginia, according to data from a drug-tracking system called NPLEx. Only two pharmacy chains sold more: Rite Aid, with 105 stores statewide, reported about 124,000 purchases, while West Virginia’s 37 Walmarts sold 104,000 boxes.
CVS stopped selling cold products — including Sudafed 12 Hour, Sudafed 24 Hour and store-brand equivalents — with pseudoephedrine as their only active ingredient June 20, DeAngelis said.
CVS continues to sell Zephrex-D, a tamper-resistant cold medication that contains pseudoephedrine as its only ingredient. Meth cooks cannot make the illegal drug with Zephrex-D. CVS stores also now carry a display that promotes the tamper-resistant medicine.
“By replacing the single-ingredient products that are preferred in the making of meth with a tamper-resistant version in these  stores, our customers continue to have access to a single-ingredient pseudoephedrine product for legitimate purposes,” DeAngelis said.
CVS also still stocks cold medications, such as Claritin-D, Allegra-D and Zyrtec-D, which combine pseudoephedrine and other ingredients, including antihistamines and pain relievers. Those medicines can be used to make meth.
“What CVS is doing is a good first step,” said Dr. Dan Foster, who heads a Kanawha County Commission substance abuse task force. “The next step is to stop selling these combination products, which can just as easily be made into meth. They want to continue selling these combo products because that’s where they make their profits.”
In February, CVS set new pseudoephedrine purchase limits that are more restrictive than those under West Virginia law. CVS customers can buy no more than 3.6 grams of the cold medication each month, and no more than 24 grams, or about 10 boxes, per year.
State law allows people to buy 7.2 grams a month and 48 grams each year.
CVS also uses the NPLEx tracking system to block purchases from people who might try to circumvent its more-restrictive limits by shopping at multiple CVS stores.
Last fall, Rite Aid stores in West Virginia stopped stocking single-ingredient pseudoephedrine products amid a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency investigation. The DEA’s Tactical Diversion Unit requested scores of records that document Rite Aid’s sales of pseudoephedrine.
Since then, Rite Aid’s sales of the meth-making cold medicine have dropped by 30 percent in West Virginia.
Also last year, Fruth Pharmacy, with 16 stores in West Virginia, was the state’s first drugstore chain to stop selling medications that contain pseudoephedrine as their only active ingredient.
Pharmacies keep medications containing pseudoephedrine behind the counter. Customers must show a photo ID and sign a form to purchase the products.
In June, West Virginia pharmacies sold 21,000 boxes of pseudoephedrine — the lowest statewide sales total since drugstores started reporting to the NPLEx system in January 2013.
Eight West Virginia Walmarts were among the state’s top-10 sellers of pseudoephedrine last month. Walgreens had two stores on the list. The Summersville Walmart led all stores.
Law enforcement authorities say pseudoephedrine sales are closely linked to illegal meth production.
In December, the Sunday Gazette-Mail reported that West Virginia counties with the highest per-capita sales of pseudopehdrine also had the most meth lab busts. The newspaper’s finding was part of a series called “The Meth Menace.”
“Substance abuse has ravaged West Virginia, and the local production and abuse of methamphetamine has only added to the epidemic,” Manchin said. “It is past time that we take strong action to stop this cycle of abuse.”
Earlier this year, the West Virginia Senate passed a bill that would have required people to get a doctor’s prescription before they could buy pseudoephedrine. The House of Delegates gutted the bill, and the legislation died the last night of the session after the House missed a deadline to file a proposed compromise agreement.
Only two states, Mississippi and Oregon, have prescription laws. The number of meth labs has declined significantly in those states.
“Certainly, I have to applaud CVS for doing something, but there is more left to be done,” said Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, who supported the prescription legislation.
“They’re slowing down the bleeding, but they haven’t stopped it. I’m hopeful over time that the retail outlets will all come to recognize that the best way to end the meth lab problem is to make sure only those people who have a prescription for the drug get it.”
Reach Eric Eyre
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