JEFFERSON CITY — A new form of pseudoephedrine that can't be used to make methamphetamine could reach the market by summer, offering a cold-remedy alternative that could prove fruitful in the fight against the dangerous and addictive drug.
The formulation known as Tarex was developed by Highland Pharmaceuticals, a small company in suburban St. Louis that has received regulatory approval and hopes to have it on the market by summer in the form of tablets under the brand name Releva. Highland president and CEO Jim Bausch said his company's form of pseudoephedrine is just as effective as those currently on the market but can't be extracted and used to make meth.
"We can stop clandestine production of meth," Bausch told members of the Missouri House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee on Wednesday. It was during a hearing on a proposal that calls for a prescription for pseudoephedrine products but with a twist: The measure would exempt Releva or other pseudoephedrine that can't be used to make meth.
Some narcotics officers believe the Tarex technology holds promise in finally turning the tide against meth labs that have ravaged much of the Midwest, South and West for two decades.
The Drug Enforcement Administration has done preliminary testing of Tarex using extraction and production techniques typically used by meth lab operators. Early results are "promising," said DEA spokesman Rusty Payne, noting that testing continues and full analysis isn't completed.
Franklin County detective Jason Grellner, whose county has been ravaged by the meth scourge, called it a "game-changer." Grellner said his own department has tested Tarex "and you can't make meth with it."
Pseudoephedrine is found in popular cold and allergy medications. Meth makers combine the pills with dangerous and highly flammable chemicals to produce the drug, most often by shaking up the ingredients in a 2-liter soda bottle — a process known as "one-pot" or "shake-and-bake" meth.
A key to meth-making is crystallization. Emilie Dolan of Highland Pharmaceuticals said Tarex interrupts the process because rather than crystallizing when heated with the chemicals, it results in a gooey substance.
"Especially with the shake-and-bake method, you can't get meth out of it," Dolan said. "It kind of gunks up."
Other states have taken notice. West Virginia State Sen. Dan Foster, a physician, said initial testing of Tarex is encouraging. Tennessee Methamphetamine Task Force director Tommy Farmer said he was cautiously optimistic and encouraged "more participation by major manufacturers for this type of proactive research."
Some members of the Missouri House committee wondered if the prescription law proposal would simply provide a huge marketing advantage for Highland, which could sell its product over the counter while other pseudoephedrine products would require a prescription.
"You don't think that's unfair to other companies?" asked Rep. Brandon Ellington, a St. Louis Democrat.
Bausch said he would be willing to work with big pharmaceutical companies to help them develop a meth-resistant pseudoephedrine, too. "Their approach has been to fight us," he said.
Carlos Guitterez of the Consumer Products Healthcare Association, which represents the large pharmaceutical companies, said the association is taking a wait-and-see approach on Highland's technology. "I honestly, frankly, hope it works," he said.
Guitterez also spoke against prescription laws, saying they penalize the cold and allergy sufferers by forcing them to go to a doctor and pay higher prices. He said laws should focus on the criminals, not the law-abiding majority.
But the Missouri bill sponsor, Rep. Dave Schatz, and other supporters note the significance of the meth problem: Missouri led the nation with 2,096 meth lab seizures in 2011 and has been the top meth-producing state every year since 2003 except for 2010, when it fell to No. 2 behind Tennessee.
Highland Pharmaceuticals began 12 years ago as a small firm seeking to improve technologies for drug delivery. But in Missouri, surrounded by counties that have among the highest meth lab seizure rates in the nation, the company turned its attention to pseudoephedrine.
"With the huge epidemic in our own backyard that we hear about every night ... we had to do something," Bausch said.
In addition to the Missouri law, Highland Pharmaceuticals has asked the DEA to exempt Tarex technology from the Combat Meth Act of 2006, which requires all pseudoephedrine products to be sold from behind the counter. The exemption would allow Tarex products to be sold in front of the counter.