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Walmarts top W.Va. list for retail sales of meth's pseudoephedrine

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Pharmacies at Walmart, Rite Aid and CVS in West Virginia are selling the largest number of boxes of a cold medication that contains an ingredient that's also used by criminals to make illegal methamphetamine in clandestine labs, according to a new report.

Last month, the Southridge Walmart in South Charleston reported 1,851 transactions for cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine, a key meth-making ingredient. That was almost double the sales at Walmart's Summersville store, which reported 960 transactions, the second-highest number in the state.

Six of the 10 pharmacies in West Virginia with the most sales were Walmart stores. Three Rite Aids -- two in Charleston and another in Belle -- and one CVS also were among the state's top 10 for pseudoephedrine sales, according to data from an electronic tracking system called NPLEx.

"All of the top ones are the large chains," said Dr. Dan Foster, who heads a Kanawha County substance-abuse task force that's studying pseudoephedrine sales and their possible link to a sharp increase in meth labs.

This week, the West Virginia Board of Pharmacy, which supports requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine, released a list of the 30 stores in West Virginia that sold the most boxes of the nasal decongestant in August. Only Walmart, Rite Aid and CVS pharmacies made the list.

No Target, Walgreen's or Kroger pharmacies finished among the top 30.

Bridget Lambert, executive director of the West Virginia Retailers Association, said it's not surprising that Walmart stores would top the list.

"Those are stores that draw the largest customer base," said Lambert, who sits on the task force. "The Southridge and Summersville Walmarts both draw customers from multiple counties. These figures are exactly what you'd expect."

Lambert added that Rite Aid and CVS stores also sell large numbers of pseudoephedrine products -- known under brand names such as Sudafed, Allegra D and Claritin-D -- because people typically go to neighborhood pharmacies when they have colds and allergy symptoms.

"They go to stores in their local communities," she said.

The report shows that sales can vary significantly, even within the same neighborhood.

For instance, the Kanawha City Rite Aid store reported 926 pseudoephedrine transactions -- the third-highest number in West Virginia. A Kanawha City CVS pharmacy just four blocks east reported 303 transactions in August.

Rite Aid spokeswoman Ashley Flower said Wednesday that the company uses the NPLEx tracking system to monitor and record sales of all products that contain pseudoephedrine.

"Rite Aid takes seriously its responsibilities with regard to the sale of products, including those products with pseudoephedrine," Flower said. "The company has designed and implemented systems to comply with federal and state law regarding sales of PSE and has a training program in place for associates to complete regarding the sale of these products."

Foster and West Virginia law enforcement officials say there's a link between pseudoephedrine sales and meth labs.

Four of the state's top 10 sellers of pseudoephedrine are located in Kanawha County -- three Rite Aid stores and the Southridge Walmart, according to the report.

This year, law enforcement agencies in Kanawha County, which has West Virginia's largest population, have busted 120 meth labs, five times more than in any other county.

Two Wood County Walmart stores -- in Vienna and Parkersburg -- also finished in the top 10 for pseudoephedrine sales. Wood County has reported 25 meth lab seizures -- the second-highest total in the state.

Officers in Nicholas County -- where the Summersville Walmart is located -- have discovered 10 meth labs since January, according to State Police data.

High pseudoephedrine sales, though, don't always correlate to large numbers of meth-lab seizures.

The Clarksburg Walmart and the Star City CVS near Morgantown reported the sixth-highest and 10th-highest numbers of pseudoephedrine boxes sold. Harrison County officers have seized three meth labs this year, while Monongalia authorities responded to only one clandestine lab. The Logan Walmart also ranked in the top 10 for pseudoephedrine sales, but Logan County has reported only two meth labs this year.

The Southridge Walmart's pseudoephedrine sales have tripled since January, according to a previous report limited to Kanawha County store sales.

Foster said Walmart's 1,851-box total in August should raise a red flag. By comparison, a Tennessee task force recently released a report that listed pseudoephedrine sales in that state. A Walgreen's in Memphis topped the list with 1,435 boxes sold in August.

"The Southridge Walmart total is just unbelievable," Foster said. "It's a real head-scratcher. You have to assume a lot of that [pseudoephedrine] is not being used to treat colds and congestion."

In response to questions about the pseudoephedrine sales report, Walmart spokeswoman Danit Marquardt said Wednesday that the retail chain is "committed to quality patient care and social responsibility. We work with government officials, law enforcement and others to serve patients who benefit from these products while protecting against their potential misuse." 

West Virginia's NPLEx report of pseudoephedrine sales counts total transactions -- and does not include blocked sales. The electronic system blocks purchases when people try to exceed monthly and yearly limits set by state law. NPLEx has blocked about 4 percent of the West Virginia's total pseudoephedrine sales this year.

In West Virginia, pharmacies keep pseudoephedrine products behind the counter. Customers must show a photo ID to purchase the decongestant.

West Virginia law enforcement agencies have reported 373 meth lab busts this year, the most in state history.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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