Meth laws in some places cause spikes elsewhere

September 6, 2011 - 4:45 PM

ST. LOUIS (AP) — An increasing number of Missouri communities are fighting methamphetamine by requiring prescriptions to purchase cold and allergy pills containing pseudoephedrine — a key meth ingredient. But police believe the meth makers are simply going to neighboring towns and counties to get their pills.

Narcotics officers said Tuesday that pseudoephedrine sales are up sharply in some Missouri locations without prescription laws, including St. Louis city and county.

Opponents of prescription laws maintain that the vast majority of purchases are by law-abiding citizens, not pill shoppers looking to make the illegal and dangerous drug.

Meth is made by mixing materials ranging from battery acid to drain cleaner. The one ingredient absolutely necessary is pseudoephedrine, found in more than a dozen popular cold and allergy medicines.

Missouri has long been at the center of the national meth epidemic. The state led the nation in lab seizures for a decade before falling to No. 2 behind Tennessee in 2010. Missouri lawmakers have tried a variety of measures to fight back, including electronic tracking of pseudoephedrine sales. After a decline in meth labs in the mid-2000s, the numbers have been rising. Missouri had 1,960 meth lab seizures in 2010.

Two states — Oregon and Mississippi — require prescriptions to purchase pseudoephedrine products. Oregon had just 12 meth lab seizures in 2010. Mississippi's law went into effect in July, and lab seizures there declined 70 percent.

Missouri lawmakers considered a statewide ban this year. It didn't pass, but 47 towns and four counties have adopted their own prescription laws. The sponsor of this year's measure, state Rep. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, said he will push for a statewide ban again in 2012.

While pseudoephedrine sales are down in places with restrictive laws, sales are up in neighboring communities.

Narcotics officers Jason Grellner of Franklin County and Mike McCartney of St. Louis County cited statistics from Missouri's electronic monitoring database showing that pseudoephedrine sales have risen in many pharmacies in St. Louis city and county in recent months. In fact, three of Missouri's top 10 pharmacies for pseudoephedrine sales are now in or near Fenton in St. Louis County, near Jefferson County.

Three counties adjoining St. Louis County — Jefferson, Franklin and St. Charles — have passed prescription laws this year, as have several towns within a short drive of St. Louis.

Other towns that neighbor communities with prescription laws are also seeing increases. Joplin in southwest Missouri began requiring a prescription on May 1. Two of Missouri's top five pharmacies for pseudoephedrine sales are now in small towns near Joplin — one in Webb City, one in Neosho.

"The spike isn't from people driving there to buy it for medical use," Grellner said.

David Overfelt, president of the Missouri Retailers Association, disagrees. He cited data showing that 97 percent of sales are to people buying one box of pseudoephedrine products or less per month. He said those are typically allergy sufferers or people with colds — not meth users.

"With the heat, the ragweed was very bad this year," Overfelt said. "A lot of people work or pass through St. Louis County. Why wouldn't they stop and buy it? I don't see that this is unexpected."

Joy Krieger, director of the St. Louis chapter of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, said that nationwide, 1 child in 15 suffers from asthma or allergies — but the number in St. Louis is 1 in 5.

"I have physicians emailing me about what a hassle it is that in addition to the huge number of patients they're already seeing on a regular basis, now they're having to see people to write prescriptions for allergies," Krieger said.

Narcotics officers say the meth problem is so bad in Missouri that the inconvenience of prescriptions is a necessary evil. Grellner cited a study by Poplar Bluff police after that southeast Missouri town passed a prescription law in 2009. Police found that on average, 111 people were driving from Poplar Bluff to Cape Girardeau each month to buy pills. "Ninety-five percent of them were known narcotics traffickers," Grellner said.

Overfelt believes police should target the known meth makers, but policymakers should not penalize the vast majority of people who he believes buy pseudoephedrine products for legitimate reasons.

"It's an inconvenience on the consumer, and a cost," Overfelt said. "Let's look at other alternatives before we go to this extreme."