The deep-pocketed Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which represents the makers of over-the-counter drugs, had waged a media campaign that included newspaper, radio and Internet ads, along with automated "robo" phone calls urging West Virginians to call their state lawmakers to block the prescription bill.
Legislators took a second swing at curbing meth labs during the 2012 legislative session.
At committee meetings, they heard stories about pharmacists and technicians at chain drugstores in West Virginia that received bonuses as a reward for selling large quantities of pseudoephedrine. Some pharmacies had cash registers specifically dedicated to pseudoephedrine sales because the cold product and meth-making ingredient was in such high demand.
But by that time, the lobbyists against the prescription requirement were even more mobilized. Drug trade groups based in Washington, D.C., sent their top lobbyists to West Virginia. The 2012 prescription-requirement bill didn't make it past the Senate's Health and Human Resources Committee.
Instead, lawmakers passed a bill that called for a "real-time" electronic tracking system designed to block illegal pseudoephedrine sales at pharmacies and reduce meth labs.
West Virginia law enforcement authorities say the system -- called NPLEx -- helps them charge and prosecute meth makers. But police say they're not using NPLEx to find labs, even though authorities have seized a record number of meth labs this year. Instead, they mostly rely on anonymous tips to locate labs.
Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, and Sen. Greg Tucker, D-Nicholas, have announced plans to introduce prescription legislation in the upcoming session, which starts next month.
They have a persuasive selling point for the bill this year: the prescription requirement would not apply to tamper-resistant pseudoephedrine products such as Nexafed and Zephrex-D. Criminals find it next to impossible to make meth from those medicines.
So cold and allergy sufferers would still be able to buy pseudoephedrine without a prescription. And meth cooks would have a difficult time securing their main meth-making ingredient.
Drug industry lobbyists have already started a campaign to oppose bills that would make pseudoephedrine prescription-only -- even with the tamper-resistant medicine exemption. The companies that manufacture Nexafed and Zephrex-D aren't members of the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, and their sales would cut into the profits of drug makers who belong to CHPA and make pseudoephedrine that can be cooked into meth.
"Now that the industry has come up with products that can't be converted to meth, there's no reason for us to continue to protect the products that can," Perdue said. "You put the meth cooks out of business."
Pulling the plug on single-ingredient pseduoephedrine drops sales
How much cold medicine is being diverted to make methamphetamine in West Virginia? No one knows for sure. But West Virginia's pseudoephedrine sales data strongly suggests that people are using large quantities of the cold medicine for something other than stuffed-up noses.
West Virginia's largest drugstore chain offers one example: In mid-October, Rite Aid stores across the state stopped selling cold medicines -- such as Sudafed 12 Hour and Sudafed 24 Hour -- that have pseudoephedrine as their only active ingredient. Meth cooks demand the single-ingredient medicines because they yield highly potent meth without byproducts.
The decision followed a Sunday Gazette-Mail story that revealed several Rite Aid stores were among the top sellers of pseudoephedrine products in the state.
After Rite Aids pulled single-ingredient Sudafed, the drugstore chain's overall pseudoephedrine sales in West Virginia plunged 37 percent between September and November. And last month's statewide sales dropped by half compared to January, according to NPLEx data.
Some Rite Aid pharmacists started addressing the problem before the chain drugstore's corporate office directive, sales data suggests. In March, for instance, the Rite Aid on Charleston's East End reported 826 pseudoephedrine transactions -- the third-highest-selling store in West Virginia that month. In September, the East End Rite Aid sold 17 boxes, and in October, just 14 boxes.
That particular Rite Aid store stopped selling pseudoephedrine products, except for Zephrex-D, the tamper-resistant version.
"It's my understanding from the Rite Aid pharmacists in charge that we talked to, they were given more leeway sometime earlier this year to say 'no,'" Goff said.
Another example of declining sales: After the first week of September, the South Charleston Walmart also stopped stocking single-ingredient Sudafed, according to NPLEx data. Pseudoephedrine sales at the Southridge Walmart dropped from 1,851 transactions in August to 212 transactions in October, an 88 percent decrease.
A spokeswoman at Walmart's corporate offices in Arkansas has denied that the Southridge Walmart changed its pseudoephedrine inventory, contradicting statements from employees at the store's pharmacy.
As sales dropped at the Southridge Walmart, customers seeking single-ingredient pseudoephedrine flocked to a small, independent pharmacy in rural Lincoln County. Meds 2 Go Express, located seven miles south of Walmart along Corridor G, suddenly became West Virginia's top-seller of pseudoephedrine in October, the NPLEx sales data shows. In response, the store's owner decided to stop selling all pseudoephedrine products on Nov. 1.
"As soon as Walmart stopped, we shot up, and we didn't know what to do," said Philip Michael, who owns Meds 2 Go. "People were waiting in line before the store opened. As a business owner, it's hard to turn that business away, but you have weigh what you know is right and what is wrong."
The South Charleston Walmart and Rite Aids throughout West Virginia still sell cold medicines - such as Claritin D, Advil Cold and Sinus, and Allegra-D, which combine pseudoephedrine with other ingredients. Meth makers don't typically buy the combination products because they include pain relievers and antihistamines.
Law enforcement authorities predict that meth cooks will buy more of the multi-ingredient cold medicines once all pharmacies stop selling Sudafed and other single-ingredient generic versions of the drug.
42 rooms, all shut down by meth
The Nov. 21 bust at Room 217 at the Nitro Economy Inn wasn't the first time police have descended on the motel after receiving a complaint about a meth lab operation.
Police seized a lab at the Economy Inn in 2009, and another lab last June.
After the June bust, state health officials ordered the motel's owners to shut down Room 306 and two-dozen other guest rooms in the same wing. The state gave the owners 30 days to clean up the meth mess. They never did.
The owners, Rohity and Nayona Megha, told the Gazette-Mail that Nitro code enforcement officers directed them to close rooms directly beside and below the meth-contaminated room - not the entire motel wing.
The Meghas said they couldn't afford to decontaminate the rooms. They plan to apply for $10,000 through the West Virginia Crime Victims Compensation Fund to pay for clean-up costs. Property owners across the state tapped the fund for more than $700,000 - a record amount -- during the past fiscal year. West Virginia is the only state in the U.S. that reimburses landlords for their meth lab cleaning bills.
Meanwhile, the Economy Inn remains shut down, all 42 rooms. After Nitro police arrested the two suspects, Boggs and Funk, Maj. Richardson helped tape up yellow warning signs on every door of every room at the budget motel. The signs read: "Do Not Occupy. Contaminated Property." He wanted to make sure there wasn't any confusion this time.
Richardson pointed to the second floor balcony outside Room 217. A child's car seat was propped below the window. Police left behind the car seat when they rushed the 18-month-old boy to the hospital. Officers also discovered toys and children's clothes scattered among materials used to manufacture meth.
"The parents make the decisions to do the things they want to do," Richardson said. "But the child's just there. They don't have a choice."