Pharmacy technician Janell Mills stacks boxes of pseudophedrine on a shelf at Forbes Pharmacy in downtown Houston. Because of a city ordinance implemented earlier this year, the popular cold medicine and prime ingredient in methamphetamine is available in Houston by prescription only.

Pseudoephedrine is the drug of choice for many people who have asthma or allergies, and is frequently used by people as a remedy for the common cold.

For those with allergies, it’s sometimes even used year-round.

But while it’s found in more than 700 over-the-counter products, pseudoephedrine is also a primary ingredient in methamphetamine and is therefore sought after by meth lab operators as well as cold sufferers. In fact, authorities indicate that meth cookers buy more of it.

Detective sergeant Jason Grellner, of the Franklin County Narcotics Enforcement and vice president of the Missouri Narcotics Officers Association, said 85 to 90 percent of pseudoephedrine purchased in the state is used to produce meth. But despite that alarming statistic, Grellner has found it difficult to convince the Missouri legislature to pass a law requiring a doctor’s prescription to acquire it.

“The pharmaceutical lobby is very strong in Jefferson City,” he said. “You’re fighting a billion-dollar industry that makes a lot of money off this drug.”

So while the battle at the state level continues, many cities, towns and counties have taken it upon themselves to initiate a ban on over-the-counter sales of pseudoephedrine. In fact, close to 70 have done just that, including Houston, where an ordinance went into effect earlier this year.

“It’s been good for the city,” Houston police chief Jim McNiell said, “As a community, we’re saying, ‘If you don’t have a prescription, you’re not going to get it here.’ I think that’s a very positive thing, and it’s something that needed to be done.”

As the pro-prescription campaign continues city by city, some police officers and residents believe a state law would be the only truly effective deterrent. St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch shares that view.

“If we pass a county law, it would just be for unincorporated areas,” Fitch sad. “People can go into other cities or into St. Louis to buy it. Local laws are a fix for that community, but it doesn’t solve the overall problem.”

Texas County Sheriff’s Deptartment Lt. Melissa Dunn agrees with Fitch, and notes that since Houston banned over-the-counter sales of pseudoephedrine, the local meth crowd is simply going to the next-closest location that still offers it without a prescription.

“We’ve learned from the sheriff’s department in Dent County that sales have increased significantly at the Walmart in Salem,” Dunn said. “Texas County residents can just go there or to Rolla, and based on sales numbers from those stores, it appears that’s what they’re doing.”

Dianna Gee of Walmart corporate media relations in Bentonville, Ark., said company policy didn’t allow for comment on specific sales trends. But Walmart shares the viewpoint that something bigger than municipal ordinances would be the best solution to the issue of limiting distribution of pseudoephedrine.

“We’re committed to following the law in every location where we do business,” Gee said. “But the way it is now, you really have this patchwork of legislation with no blanket procedure for pseudoephedrine sales. We recognize that requiring customers to have a prescription for certain products in certain Missouri counties can be an inconvenience and be confusing, especially for legitimate buyers who use these products for colds, allergies, and other reasons.

“Our customers are, of course, always our number one priority, so we’re in favor of a more uniform policy that would allow us to better serve.”

While Walmart’s pharmacy in Houston sold pseudoephedrine over-the-counter until the city ordinance took effect, some local pharmacies began offering it by prescription-only long before Houston implemented its law.

Hutcheson Pharmacy owner and former Houston mayor Steve Hutcheson said the ordinance hasn’t really affected his business because he made the change about two years ago, in large part to avoid the paperwork the state began requiring to track over-the-counter sales of the drug.

“We’re following the statute passed by the city council, but we’ve been doing it that way for a long time now,” Hutcheson said. “The bookkeeping that was required was very intensive for the amount we were selling and it really wasn’t worth keeping it on the shelf.”

Downtown Houston’s Forbes’ Pharmacy has also sold pseudoephidrine exclusively by prescription since the state began its paperwork requirements. Head pharmacist Sharon Lunz said the reason behind the move was that paperwork generated by the company’s computer system wasn’t compliant with state requirements. But even when the state offered to provide an electronic system, Forbes passed.

McNiell said that he and his officers used to deal with numerous visitors from West Plains, Poplar Bluff and other communities with pseudoephedrine ordinances who came to Houston with the sole purpose purchasing a prime meth ingredient. Not so since Houston’s law took effect.

“I know it creates a hardship for those who have to get a prescription, but at the same time it’s keeping less-desirable people out of our neighborhoods who were coming here buying pseudoephedrine,” he said. “We were seeing people from all over the state coming here to get it, especially from southeast Missouri.”

Grellner and his agency have been instrumental in helping many communities formulate and implement their own pseudoephedrine laws. He visited Houston earlier this year and spoke to city officials about the idea and the process.

“It’s because of some great work done by Jason and the Missouri Narcotics Association that we’ve been able to get this done in the communities where it has been done,” McNiell said. “I think it’s a shame that we’re having to attack the problem by city government instead of the state passing some type of law. But hopefully, we’re attacking the problem, which is the manufacturing of meth.

“There are certain ingredients needed to make it, and at least we’re taking away one of them.”

Hutcheson agrees with those who say the answer lies in wider-reaching law and has had conversations with sheriff’s department and courthouse authorities who indicate that a large percentage of the people they see come through their systems are there due to some connection with meth.

“Whether it’s production, distribution or they’re stealing to support the habit, it’s just pervasive,” Hutcheson said. “Until we get the handle on this, it’s not going to change. And it’s not just men – and with the number of women involved, it’s breaking down the fabric of home life, so our kids are becoming involved.

“It’s too bad that people who really need that product are being deprived of having it readily available, but I think in the long run it’s better to control the madness, even if it’s hurting a few people.”

It’s too bad that people who really need that product are being deprived of having it readily available, but I think in the long run it’s better to control the madness, even if it’s hurting a few people.”

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