Stores limit access to cold meds

Wednesday, January 21, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:22 a.m. CDT, Sunday, June 29, 2008

Making methamphetamine is much harder now than it was a year ago. As Columbia stores come into compliance with a new state law restricting sales of a key meth ingredient, cookers of the illicit drug are no longer able to easily stockpile the supplies they need.

Hy-Vee is the latest store to limit customer access to over-the-counter cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine, one of the main ingredients in meth.

Pseudoephedrine is a decongestant found in Sudafed tablets, Dimetapp Extentabs, Drixoral 12-Hour Cold Tablets and dozens of other cold, allergy and sinus remedies. Tablets or capsules containing 30 milligrams or more of pseudoephedrine are now located behind the Hy-Vee pharmacy counter.

Ken Kreigh, supervisor of the Boone County Sheriff’s Department’s drug enforcement unit, said those products are most favored among meth manufacturers, who must obtain several hundred cold pills to produce one gram of the drug.

“They used to be able to buy cases of pills,” he said. “But now a lot of stores have been educated about this. It’s not easy anymore to get the large quantity of pills that they need.”

Missouri’s law restricting the sales of pseudoephedrine went into effect Aug. 28. Senate Bill 442 requires cold and allergy medicines be sold behind the pharmacy counter or within 10 feet of a clerk.

Sen. Anita Yeckel, R-St. Louis, sponsored the legislation, which also set a two-package, or six-gram, limit on medicines containing pseudoephedrine. Missouri previously had a three-package, or nine-gram limit.

Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, opposed the two-package restriction, saying it was inconvenient for sick people and unfair to businesses.

“This has gone way too far,” Jacob said in May. “There’s got to be a better strategy to stop methamphetamine production.”

Hy-Vee customers who want to purchase the drugs must ask a pharmacist for them. If there is no pharmacist on duty, the medicine must be obtained from the customer service desk. Sales are limited to two packages a visit, and customers must sign a log documenting their purchase.

Tom Klucking, Columbia Hy-Vee store director, said he has received no customer complaints as a result of the recent restrictions.

“They understand the obvious concern,” he said. “We still have those drugs available for customers who need them for legitimate medical reasons.”

Hy-Vee Chairman Ron Pearson stated in a press release that the company tried to “balance customer convenience with crime prevention.”

Hy-Vee is not the only local store to restrict the sale of over-the-counter cold medicines. Wal-Mart keeps the drugs within 10 feet of the pharmacy counter. Walgreens and Gerbes keep the drugs behind the counter. While the stores enforce the two-package limit, they do not require customers to sign a log. Kreigh, whose drug enforcement unit busted 18 Boone County meth labs in 2003, said the store restrictions have proven helpful in the fight to control the drug. In 2002, the drug enforcement unit had 12 meth lab busts.

“We’ve put out information to stores about what a suspected meth cook would be purchasing,” he said. “A number of arrests in the past couple of years have been made because of our partnership with local merchants in reporting suspicious activity.”

In addition to pharmacies, law enforcement officers have also educated hardware stores, which sell acids and solvents used in meth production. Drug investigators also routinely monitor areas where anhydrous ammonia is stored. Used by farmers to fertilize fields, anhydrous ammonia is the most difficult meth ingredient for cooks to obtain, Kreigh said.

State and federal figures show that one out of every six meth labs in the United States was found in Missouri in 2002, making Missouri No. 1 in the nation for meth busts. Police statewide reported 2,725 raids and seizures in 2002. Numbers for numbers are expected to be released sometime in March.

Last year, the federal government gave Missouri law enforcement agencies $3 million in grants to help battle meth production.

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