St. Louis Company May Have Answer To Ending Meth Labs

Mar 15, 2013

Not many of us are chemists.

Yet by removing one oxygen atom average people here in Missouri regularly are turning common decongestants like Sudafed and Claritin-D into the illicit drug methamphetamine.

Nationwide those explosive mom and pop meth labs were estimated by a Rand study to cost taxpayers more than $23 billion a year in health care costs, child endangerment and clean-up.

But as St. Louis Public Radio’s Maria Altman reports a local pharmaceutical company may have the answer.

In a non-descript office building in suburban St. Louis a little company was busy developing big technology; a binding agent to make a tamper-resistant drug.

They weren’t yet sure exactly what drug Westport Pharmaceuticals they would tackle.

Paul Hemings is the General Manager and Vice President of the Highland Pharmaceuticals subsidiary.

He says looking back, it was staring them in the face.

“It started with our patent attorney who also has a chemistry background and lives out in Pacific where this meth problem is huge and one day she just mentioned ‘have you thought about this?’” 

A map of the most recent data from the DEA. Missouri leads the nation in seizures of clandestine meth labs.
A map of the most recent data from the DEA. Missouri leads the nation in seizures of clandestine meth labs.
Credit (U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration)

That is how to prevent pseudoephedrine, a common ingredient in nasal decongestants, from being turned into methamphetamine. 

Zephrex-D was the result.

How It Works

Hemings points out the pills’ waxy white coating. 

"We can end meth labs in the U.S. starting right here in our backyard where the problem is the biggest." - Paul Hemings

He says the new drug works just as well as other pseudoephedrine products, but meth cooks can’t extract the key ingredient. That means they can’t make meth.

“We can end meth labs in the U.S. starting right here in our backyard where the problem is the biggest,” Hemings said.

Last year alone law enforcement seized more than 1,800 clandestine labs in Missouri, the most of any state in the country.

Detective Sgt. Jason Grellner is with the Franklin County Narcotics Enforcement Unit and is considered the expert on Missouri’s meth lab epidemic.

Grellner says he was skeptical of Zephrex-D after years of being told by large pharmaceutical companies that a tamper-resistant drug couldn’t be made.

Now he says he’s a believer.

“I’ve seen the testing by independent laboratories; I’ve personally tested the product in a one-pot meth lab setting; and I know of other testing that has been done,” he said. “They have manufactured a product that is meth lab resistant.”  

Requiring A Prescription?

Grellner doesn’t expect "big pharma," as he calls it, to change their pseudoephedrine products, at least not yet.

He says for now the best way to keep the pills that still can be converted into meth away from criminals is to require prescriptions.  

"They have manufactured a product that is meth lab resistant." - Detective Sgt. Jason Grellner

That faces strong opposition, including from the St. Louis Chapter of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation.

“We do know that meth is a terrible problem in Missouri, we just disagree on how to take care of this,” said Joy Krieger, the foundation’s executive director and a registered nurse.

Krieger says they support a proposed law to further limit the amount of pseudoephedrine people can buy each month, but she says getting a prescription is an expensive hassle.

“Pseudoephedrine is safe for those purchasing it for proper reasons, so penalizing residents and citizens who have done nothing wrong we think is not a fair way to look for a solution,” she said.

(For more: Maria Altman's story on how the issue of pseudoephedrine prescriptions was developing in 2010)

The Legal Perspective

State Representative Jeff Roorda has sponsored legislation for the state-wide prescription law every year since 2005.

The Democrat from Jefferson County, the heart of Missouri’s meth country, says with Zephrex-D, there is a good alternative available for cold and allergy sufferers, so there can be no more excuses.

“Now we have a pseudoephedrine that’s incapable of being converted into methamphetamine, I mean arguments against this just hold absolutely no water anymore,” Roorda said.

The impact of Zephrex-D remains to be seen.

Westport Pharmaceuticals officials say they’re open to selling their binding technology to other drug-makers.

Right now Zephrex-D is only available in Missouri and the Metro East.

Officials say they plan a national roll-out this summer.

Follow Maria Altman on Twitter: @radioaltman