News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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May 20, 2010

Four Valley pharmacies to require prescriptions for certain products to help fight meth problem

3 other pharmacies seeking corporate OK to enact policy

TERRE HAUTE — Four area pharmacies have agreed to help combat the illegal production of methamphetamine in Vigo County by requiring prescriptions for the purchase of pseudoephedrine and ephedrine products.

Kmart, Walmart South and Walmart East, JR Pharmacy, and Terre Haute Prescription Shop now will require a doctor’s prescription before selling products such as Sudafed, Mucinex D and other popular cold remedies with decongestants containing pseudoephedrine, or PSE.

Three other pharmacies — Kroger, CVS and Walgreens — have agreed to seek corporate approval to enact the same prescription-only policy by July 1.

At a summit of police agencies and business owners on Thursday, Terre Haute Police Sgt. Chris Gallagher appealed to representatives of those pharmacy retailers to require prescriptions from anyone who wants to purchase products containing the main ingredient used in the production of methampetamine.

“If we can’t appeal to your business sense, we will appeal to your humanity,” Gallagher said of the voluntary action requested of the pharmacies.

This action is the latest step in the ongoing battle against the scourge of methamphetamine production and use in Vigo County. Sheriff Jon Marvel said he hopes Vigo County will be the leader in what will become a statewide requirement for prescription-only sales of PSE products. Such a forefront role, Marvel said, would mirror the actions of several years ago, when county officials set a weekly limit on PSE purchases per person. State legislators embraced that tact, passing a similar law. For awhile, police saw a big difference in the local production of meth, Marvel said.

But the next phase in the meth problem became “smurfing” or “gigging,” when eight to 10 people cram into a vehicle and travel to pharmacies throughout the area to purchase the limited number of pseudoephedrine drugs in order to have enough to cook a batch of meth.

John Love, a pharmacist at Terre Haute Prescription Shop, told the said he has seen carloads of people park behind the South Seventh Street pharmacy and then the occupants come inside, one by one, to purchase PSE cold medicines.

To end that, Love said, the pharmacy enacted the prescription-only policy about five months ago. Love said the policy did not affect the pharmacy’s overall sales, and he sees it as a benefit to his legitimate customers.

Ron Vencel of JR Pharmacy said the “smurfers” became a major worry for his business, so security cameras were installed. The pharmacy also has refused to sell pseudoephedrine to people without a prescription.

“I just don’t feel like it’s worth the risk of having those people in the store,” Vencel said to fellow pharmacists at the THPD summit.

Gallagher said he feels the prescription-only stance is the only way to stop the continued meth production problem in the county.

One of the first clandestine labs he helped clean up, Gallagher said, was at a home in New Goshen, in which he found a huge vat of ether next to a baby crib. That frightening situation showed him how meth addiction causes people to lose their sense of responsibility for their family, he said.

When meth users are first arrested, he said, they often don’t act like normal people, and it takes a few days before the “person” is ready to talk to police.

“When you look in their eyes and see the human being reappear, that’s a pretty powerful moment,” Gallagher said. But those people usually reveal that their family members and many neighbors also are using meth, so they live in a drug culture that is hard to escape.

Gallagher said he sees hope in the successful efforts made in Oregon.

In 2003, the state of Oregon reported 473 meth labs. After limiting sales and putting PSE products behind the counter, only 192 labs were reported in 2005. By 2007, after requiring a prescription for PSE products, only 18 meth labs were reported in the state.

“Those numbers to me are phenomenal,” Gallagher said, “and that’s what we’re hoping to do.”

Following Oregon’s lead, the states of California, Kentucky, Missouri and Oklahoma will vote on prescription-only PSE laws in coming months.

Gallagher said that requiring a prescription will not limit access for legitimate users of PSE medications. He said he has talked to several area physicians who are willing to write prescriptions for their patients, although a few were concerned they might be inundated by prescription requests. For people who already are at their doctor’s office to receive a prescription for a regulated drug, he said, adding the PSE prescription should not be a problem.

Marvel said meth is the most common drug addiction seen at the Vigo County jail, and the problem has grown through the years.

When he took office as sheriff in 2003, Marvel said, the inmate medical budget was about $100,000 for an average inmate count of 225. The jail now averages about 300 people per day, and has a medical budget of about $500,000. He attributed those increases to the county’s drug abuse problem.

“Nearly every inmate in my jail is addicted to some kind of drug,” Marvel said. “The biggest one we see is meth.”

Dr. Randy Stevens, former physician for the jail, said the local sales restriction ordinance did help reduce meth production and abuse in the county for awhile. In fact, area hospitals experienced a sharp drop in meth-addicted newborns, from about 10 each month to zero about 12-18 months after the local ordinance went into effect.

However, the number of meth-addicted babies has slowly crept back up.

Although Gallagher received verbal commitments to require prescriptions from four of the seven pharmacies represented, the request did receive an alternate suggestion.

Grant Monahan of the Indiana Retail Council said state legislators have authored a bill that requires electronic tracking of all PSE product sales in real time.

But Gallagher and Marvel both said they think that tracking is not enough to stop the problem.

It takes too long for a police officer to get to the scene of a purchase violation even if the sales are tracked in real time, Gallgher said. And then pharmacy clerks must deal with an angry and potentially violent customer who might be impaired by meth while waiting for an officer to arrive.

Gallagher said a better solution is for self-regulation by requiring prescriptions for PSE sales.

He set a deadline of June 15 to hear from the pharmacies that were represented at Thursday’s meeting, noting that he hopes to have voluntary compliance countywide by July 1, because that is the date that new state laws usually go into effect. Once the Vigo County policy has been in place for awhile, Marvel and Gallagher both said, it will be good evidence to take to state legislators to get a state law enacted for prescription-only sales of PSE products.

Lisa Trigg can be reached at (812) 231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com.

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