ALUM CREEK, W.Va. -- Almost overnight, a small independent pharmacy in rural Lincoln County became West Virginia's No. 1 seller of a cold medicine that's also used to manufacture methamphetamine.
In October, new customers flocked to Meds 2 Go Express, a family-owned pharmacy along Little Coal River Road in Alum Creek. They grumbled that the Walmart, seven miles up the road, had stopped selling Sudafed, which contains a key meth-making ingredient called pseudoephedrine.
The Alum Creek pharmacy's sales jumped from 140 boxes of pseudoephedrine in August to 570 boxes last month, making Meds 2 Go Express the top seller in the state.
"We sold a little bit here and there, but then we started getting more, and then this past month, it just exploded," said Philip Michael, the Lincoln County pharmacy's owner. "I said, 'God almighty.' It was crazy."
Michael ultimately made a business decision that wasn't necessarily good for business.
On Nov. 1, Meds 2 Go stopped selling all pseudoephedrine products. The decision will cost the store thousands of dollars in sales each month, but Michael wants no part of West Virginia's meth lab problem.
"It became troubling and worrisome," Michael said, standing behind the pharmacy counter last week. "We felt that, even though we were making money, it wasn't the right way to do things. So we stopped. Completely."
Earlier this month, Rite Aid pharmacies in West Virginia stopped carrying single-ingredient pseudoephedrine products, such as Sudafed 12 Hour and Sudafed 24 Hour. Meth cooks demand those products because they yield highly potent meth without byproducts.
Rite Aid, which has 100 stores across the state, still sells cold medicines, like Claritin-D and Allegra-D, which combine pseudoephedrine with pain relievers and antihistamines. The chain drugstore said methamphetamine was harder to make from the combination products.
"That's bull," Michael said. "If we didn't have the Sudafed, they wanted the Claritin-D, the Allegra-D. So we stopped -- not only Sudafed; we stopped everything."
West Virginia's new pseudoephedrine-tracking system -- called NPLEx -- helps explain how a tiny Lincoln County pharmacy became the state's top-seller of meth-making cold medications.
In August, the Walmart closest to Meds 2 Go Express reported more than 1,800 pseudoephedrine sales transactions. The store sold hundreds of boxes of Sudafed that month, according to NPLEx data.
The first week of September, the Walmart in South Charleston stopped selling Sudafed, and total pseudoephedrine sales dropped to 212 boxes -- an 88 percent decrease, the NPLEx data show.
"When Walmart stopped selling Sudafed, what happened was all their people came to us, and you see how big this place is," Michael said, pointing to the cramped space. "We're no bigger than a hole in the wall."
House Health and Human Resources Committee Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne, said word spreads quickly among meth addicts about where they can buy pseudoephedrine.
"It's like pushing a balloon when one store stops selling this, but what happened here is you have a pharmacy pushing back," said Perdue, a retired pharmacist who plans to introduce legislation next year to require a prescription for pseudoephedrine.
"What he's done in Lincoln County, I hope all pharmacies and pharmacists consider doing, especially when they see extraordinary increases in their sales volumes."
A Walmart corporate spokeswoman has denied that the South Charleston store changed its pseudoephedrine inventory.
Nonetheless, in mid-September, new customers started lining up outside the tiny Lincoln County pharmacy. They'd show up before the store opened at 9 a.m., Michael said.
Many came from Charleston -- 15 miles away. They paid $15 for a box of pseudoephedrine, preferring generic brands such as Sunmark and Health Mart. By October, business was booming.
"It wasn't like they were local people," Michael said. "This thing exploded. We got bombarded."
Some customers would pull up to the pharmacy's drive-thru window, asking to buy "12 Hour," a nickname for pseudoephedrine. The store's pharmacist, Mark Reinhard, would refuse to sell it to them, so they'd come into the drugstore. "I wanted to see whom I'm selling to," said Reinhard, who previously worked for Rite Aid.