Meth makers adjust to cold-meds restriction in W.Va.

Because several drugstore chains in West Virginia have stopped stocking specific cold medications that fuel methamphetamine labs, meth cooks are now buying related medicines that haven’t been restricted, a Kanawha County drug task force heard Wednesday.

Nearly 75 percent of people recently arrested on meth lab charges purchased cold medicines, such as Claritin-D and Advil-D, that combine a key meth-making ingredient called pseudoephedrine with other allergy-fighting or headache-relief ingredients, according to a preliminary analysis by the West Virginia Board of Pharmacy

Over the past year, Fruth Pharmacy, Rite Aid, Walgreens and CVS have stopped selling cold medicines, such as Sudafed 12 Hour, that contain pseudoephedrine as their only active ingredient. But the pharmacies still sell multi-symptom versions of the cold pills.

“Perhaps what you’re starting to see is the effect of eliminating the single-ingredient product and now those purchasers are having to fall back to a secondary choice, which is not their optimal choice,” said Fruth Pharmacy President Lynn Fruth, who sits on the Kanawha County Commission Substance Abuse Task Force. “If the product is not available, the sales are going to go somewhere.”

Carlos Gutierrez, a lobbyist for drug makers, said taking away single-ingredient pseudoephedrine products wouldn’t stop meth cooks. Instead, Gutierrez suggested the state set up a meth-offender registry that would block people convicted of meth-related crimes from buying pseudoephedrine in all forms.

“The [U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration] has said from the very beginning that if you take away single-ingredient, it can and will and is proven that they’ll use other products whether it’s harder [to make meth] or not,” said Gutierrez, a task force member.

Fruth recommended that the state pharmacy board investigate what pseudoephedrine brands meth cooks were buying before the drugstore chains stopped carrying cold medications that have pseudoephedrine as their sole ingredient.

Overall pseudoephedrine sales in West Virginia have dropped about 30 percent since the pharmacies stopped carrying Sudafed and its store-brand generic equivalents.

Meth lab seizures also have dropped. Police have busted 207 meth labs so far this year in West Virginia. In 2013, officers seized 530 labs, a record number.

“We all agree — law enforcement, the pharmacies — the No. 1 drug of choice is the single-ingredient,” Fruth said. “This is not the perfect solution, but we’re making some headway.”

Dr. Dan Foster, who heads the task force, said meth cooks seek out the cheapest pseudoephedrine products. Single-ingredient brands are typically less expensive.

“Their first choice is the single-ingredient, but they will go with whatever they can make the most meth from at the cheapest price,” he said.

Several task force members said meth labs would disappear in West Virginia and other states if major drug manufacturers sold only “tamper-resistant” pseudoephedrine products that couldn’t be converted to meth.

Drugstores now sell two such medications, Zephrex-D and Nexafed, which have pseudoephedrine as their only active ingredient. Both products are manufactured by small firms with limited advertising budgets.

The major drug makers have balked at selling cold pills that can’t be made into meth.

“If we force the industry to make these products tamper resistant, we won’t have to worry about meth labs,” said Lt. Chad Napier, a Charleston police officer who serves on the task force. “The technology is there, but they’re not going to do it. It’s about greed, money.”

Gutierrez, a lobbyist for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, said the drug companies he represents have “tried for years” to develop pseudoephedrine pills that can’t be converted to meth.

“I can’t speak for each individual company, but I know they have spent millions of dollars trying to do it in the past, and it’s just never worked,” Gutierrez said. “They could be trying to do it as we speak. I just don’t know that.”

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869 or follow @EricEyre.

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