CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Longtime Kanawha County pharmacist Donn Neurman says it's easy to spot people who buy cold medications with plans to make illegal methamphetamine, but not so easy to stop them.
The customers typically call pharmacies, asking whether they carry Sudafed 12 Hour and Sudafed 24 Hour, nasal decongestants that contain the main ingredient used to manufacture meth in clandestine labs. A short time later, the callers show up at the store with four or five people in tow.
"I can look toward the register, over the counter, and I know they're going to ask for it," said Neurman, a Rite Aid pharmacist who used to own The Medicine Shop in Kanawha City. "It is that obvious."
Neurman sometimes questions customers: Do they have a stuffy nose? Do they have a chronic condition, such as high-blood pressure, that could worsen if they take Sudafed?
But most times, Neurman said, he and other pharmacists are too busy to confront customers whom they suspect are buying the cold medicine with plans to cook meth.
"We have the ability to challenge them, but it is very, very difficult," Neurman told a Kanawha County substance abuse task force that's studying the county's meth lab problem. "It's very difficult to block a sale."
Neurman said he has worked as a "floating pharmacist" in 37 stores in the Kanawha Valley since selling The Medicine Shop in 2006. Pharmacists and pharmacy technicians constantly grapple with how to handle suspicious customers who buy medications that contain pseudoephedrine, a key meth-making ingredient, he said.
"It's the worst thing I have ever seen in all my years of pharmacy practice," said Nuerman, who has worked as a pharmacist for more than 30 years. "There's no match."
Neurman said West Virginia's new pseudoephedrine tracking system -- called NPLEX -- has helped block sales of the cold medication to people who try to exceed monthly and yearly limits under state law.
"It's the first thing we're praying for, that it will make the decision [to stop a sale] for us," he said.
Neurman said Rite Aid pharmacies display some pseudoephedrine products, but not the "long-lasting" 12-hour and 24-hour versions. The pharmacies keep the nasal decongestant behind the counter, and people must sign a log and show an ID to buy pseudoephedrine.
"At least at Rite Aid, everybody is carded," he said.
Neurman, who also serves on the task force, recommended legislation that would require a prescription for Sudafed 12 Hour and 24 Hour, Claritin-D 24 Hour and Allegra-D 24 Hour. Other medications that contain pseudoephedrine in lower concentrations, such as Sudafed 4 Hour, should continue to be made available without a prescription, he said.
He suggested that pharmacies be required to post large signs that alert people that they could face fines and criminal penalties if they misuse pseudoephedrine.