CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In the weeks before their arrest, Jennifer Boggs and Jennifer Funk went on a shopping spree for cold medicines used to clear up stuffy noses and make illegal methamphetamine.
Boggs and Funk shopped at Walmart, Target, Meds-2-Go Express and Rite Aid stores from Charleston to Huntington, records show. They bought Sudafed 12 Hour, Allegra D, Sunmark and Health Mart brands -- nasal decongestants containing pseudoephedrine, the main ingredient in meth.
And then they checked into Room 217 at the Economy Inn in Nitro.
On Nov. 21, Nitro police, acting on an anonymous tip, conducted a "knock and talk" at Room 217.
Inside, they found Boggs and Funk, along with an 18-month-old boy. There were bugs everywhere. Officers found beakers, rubber tubing, scales, razor blades, bags of red phosphorous, syringes, sulfuric acid, coffee filters, bulk matches and empty blister packs of pseudoephedrine cold medicine tucked into a box of Kellogg's Honey Smacks cereal.
Boggs and Funk were charged with attempting to operate a meth lab.
"They are getting [pseudoephedrine] wherever they can get it," said Maj. David Richardson, a Nitro police officer. "They steal it, trade things for it, have other people they know buy it, whatever they need to do to get it."
Across West Virginia, drugstores are selling cold medicines to criminals, helping fuel a massive increase in meth production this year, according to a Sunday Gazette-Mail investigation.
West Virginia law enforcement agencies have busted more than 500 meth labs since January -- the most in state history.
As a result, West Virginia is suffering from an unprecedented wave of explosions, fires, burns, toxic poisonings and environmental destruction.
Children and law enforcement officers have been sent to the hospital for respiratory illnesses after being exposed to meth. Ambulances have had to be shut down and decontaminated. Sheriff's departments, strapped by tight budgets, are spending money to buy "moon suits" and special trucks to clean up the toxic drug.
Law-abiding West Virginians who live next to properties with meth labs have been forced to leave their homes and apartments. Landlords, hotel owners and operators of storage units complain about the increasing cost of cleaning up meth labs -- as much as $17,000 for a small home.
"Due to meth labs, West Virginia's children, families, neighbors, friends, businesses and property owners are suffering terrible health and economic consequences," said Judy Crabtree, who helps lead a group called West Virginia Intervention on Meth Labs Committee. "The meth lab epidemic affects all of us, no matter where we live."
Meth busts peak where pseudoephedrine sales are higher
Look at the counties in West Virginia where pharmacies sell the most boxes of pseudoephedrine per capita: That's where you'll find the most meth labs.
So far this year, Kanawha County pharmacies have sold more than 80,000 pseudoephedrine-containing cold medicines. On a per-person basis, Kanawha pharmacy sales were more than twice the state average, and 46 times higher per-capita than in Monroe County, which had the lowest sales rate, according to a Gazette-Mail analysis of sales data from January to mid-November.
Kanawha County has been overrun with meth labs -- 150 reported at last count -- or 30 percent of all labs seized in the state and four times more than any other county. Monroe County hasn't had any meth labs this year.
"There's a definite correlation between the counties with high numbers of boxes sold per person and high meth lab numbers," said Mike Goff, a former State Police officer who now tracks meth labs and drug sales at the state Board of Pharmacy.
Rural Nicholas County had the next highest pseudoephedrine sales rate. The Summersville Walmart in Nicholas County consistently ranks as one of the top-sellers of pseudoephedrine products in West Virginia. Authorities have busted 11 meth labs in Nicholas County, and another 17 combined in neighboring Fayette and Webster counties.
Pharmacies in the counties of Putnam (25 labs), Cabell (20 labs), Wood (35 labs), Jackson (14 labs), Logan (nine labs) and Randolph (18 labs) also sold more boxes of pseudoephedrine than the state average on a per-person basis.
"That's where the diversion of pseudoephedrine is happening," Goff said. "That's where it's going for something other than sinus congestion."
Upshur County authorities seized 23 labs -- a high number for a rural county -- but Upshur's pseudoephedrine sales rate fell below the state average, according to the Gazette-Mail analysis.
Four counties -- Monongalia, Ohio, Wetzel and Harrison -- also exceeded the state sales average, but have reported few meth labs. Wetzel County authorities haven't busted any meth labs this year.
Such numbers could depend on store locations -- along Interstate highways that stretch through multiple counties, Goff said.
Three of those counties -- Monongalia, Ohio and Wetzel -- border neighboring states. Criminals could be buying pseudoephedrine at West Virginia pharmacies, but making meth in clandestine labs across the border, he said. "There are going to be anomalies," Goff said.
Legislature twice rejects prescription bills
In 2011, West Virginia law enforcement officers and medical professionals had a fix for West Virginia's meth lab problem: Require a prescription for cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine.
Oregon and Mississippi reported dramatic declines in meth lab numbers, after passing laws that made Sudafed and other pseudoephedrine pills prescription-only. The new laws made it harder for criminals to get their hands on the main ingredient used to cook meth. Oregon and Mississippi essentially put local meth makers out of business.
Legislation to do the same in West Virginia sailed through the House of Delegates by a vote of 77-23 during the 2011 session.
Next up was the Senate. More than 50 uniformed police officers and paramedics filled the Senate gallery to watch the vote.
Senators deadlocked on the bill, 16-16. The West Virginia Senate has 34 members. Then-Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, now governor, was serving as acting governor at the time and hadn't voted in the Senate all session.
Former Sen. Walt Helmick, D-Pocahontas, also was absent. Helmick strolled into the chamber shortly after the vote. He said he was attending a luncheon for his grandson when his colleagues voted.
The prescription-only bill failed by a single vote.
The drug industry and retailers lobbied strongly against the legislation, arguing that the prescription for pseudoephedrine would burden consumers and drive up health-care costs.