Panel: Meth cooks dodge drugstore restrictions

As drugstore chains in West Virginia take steps to limit sales of cold medications that fuel methamphetamine labs, meth cooks have found ways to circumvent the restrictions, according to speakers at a Tuesday symposium on the clandestine labs.

Meth makers thwart new store limits on medicines containing pseudoephedrine, a key meth-making ingredient, by hiring friends and relatives to buy the products, panel members said.

“They get around the system,” said Tonya Cobb, a former meth addict. “They hire so many people — their cousins, their friends. They come back with five, six, seven boxes.”

Also, meth cooks are now buying cold medications that combine pseudoephedrine with other ingredients, after pharmacies stopped selling products, such as Sudafed 12 Hour, that solely contain the decongestant, the panelists said.

“Claritin-D is becoming the product of choice,” said Brad Henry, a Charleston doctor. “As we tighten the chains and have many drugstores going to the single-ingredient product, [meth makers] are going to find the next easiest product.”

Over the past year, Rite Aid, CVS, Fruth Pharmacy and Walgreens stores in West Virginia stopped carrying cold medications that have pseudoephedrine as their only active ingredient. Meth makers typically prefer the single-ingredient medicines because they yield potent meth without byproducts.

However, the West Virginia Board of Pharmacy has reported that 70 percent of people recently arrested for meth crimes bought products, such as Claritin-D, Advil-D and Zyrtec-D, which combine pseudoephedrine with antihistamines and pain relievers.

Cobb said the multi-ingredient products can easily be made into meth.

“We took anything we could get: the combo or the single,” she recalled. “It’s just a different breakdown process.”

Cobb and Henry joined a drug detective and an aide to Sen. Joe Manchin for a “Stop Meth Labs Policy Session” Tuesday at the Culture Center in Charleston. The panel was part of a conference sponsored by an anti-poverty group called Our Children, Our Future.

Lt. Chad Napier, a Charleston police investigator, said meth lab seizures take time away from officers who are battling West Virginia’s problem with prescription drugs and heroin. West Virginia has the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation.

Napier supports a proposal that would require people to get a prescription before they can buy pseudoephedrine. In February, the state Senate passed a bill that would make pseudoephedrine prescription-only, but the House of Delegates gutted the bill, which died the last night of the session.

“If legislators would get our backs and help law enforcement with meth labs, then we can throw all of our resources to what’s devastating the state: the prescription pill problem, which has led to the heroin problem,” Napier said.

Last year, West Virginia law enforcement agencies seized 533 meth labs, a record number. This year, officers are on pace to bust about 400 meth labs, a 25 percent decrease.

Pseudoephedrine sales declined by a similar percentage, after drugstores in West Virginia restricted purchases.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers passed a bill that stopped property owners from tapping the West Virginia Crime Victims Compensation Fund for meth lab cleaning costs. A flood of meth claims was gutting the fund.

Jennifer Rhyne, who runs a meth lab cleanup company, said some landlords are now reluctant to report meth contamination because the state no longer reimburses them for cleanup costs.

“It’s like, ‘I didn’t see it, I didn’t see it,’” Rhyne said of landlords who don’t disclose meth labs and won’t pay out of their own pockets to clean them. “The homes are now all going back to the bank.”

A group called the West Virginia Intervention on Meth Labs Committee is renewing its push to require a prescription for pseudoephedrine. Only two states — Oregon and Mississippi — have prescription laws. The number of meth labs has dropped significantly in those states.

The group notes that drugstores now sell tamper-resistant pseudoephedrine products, such as Nexafed and Zephrex-D, which can’t easily be cooked into meth. Those products would be exempt from the prescription requirement.

“Sudafed is a cold medication. It doesn’t cure anything,” Henry said. “It doesn’t make you get any better any faster. Nobody’s going to die without Sudafed.”

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com, 304-348-4869 or follow @ericeyre on Twitter.

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