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Local company may have new weapon in meth wars

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 11, 2011 - When Linda Lewis thinks about the consequences of meth in Franklin County, she looks beyond stories of explosions in clandestine labs and the deaths, arrests and addiction rates. To her, the most visible impact is the work left for grandparents.

"I am broken-hearted to see so many of them raising grandkids whose parents are part of that lost generation," Lewis says. "Because of meth, many of their own children, people in their 20s and 30s, have just dropped off the planet."

Lewis has more than an emotional interest in this issue. As a former research chemist at Monsanto and now a patent attorney specializing in technology involving chemistry, she believes science offers the best solution to the problem. She also is associated with a small specialty company founded a decade ago, Highland Pharmaceuticals of Creve Coeur, that says it has figured out a way to beat meth makers at their game.

To understand Highland's approach, consider what's needed to produce methamphetamine. One key ingredient is pseudoephedrine found in several common over-the-counter drugs, such as the decongestant, Sudafed. In clandestine labs, situated mostly in rural communities, the pseudoephedrine is separated from Sudafed tablets through either a water or oil process that ultimately produces the crystals known as meth. This is the product peddled to users who inhale, ingest or inject it to get high.

Highland says it has developed an alternative drug product, a pill that's tamper-proof: Meth cookers can't extract the pseudoephedrine to create the crystals that addicts crave. Assuming its approach proves effective, the pharmaceutical company says its outside-the-box approach could be a breakthrough in putting meth labs out of business.

Highland says it knows of no other company that's approaching the problem the way it has. Other approaches have involved either law enforcement cracking down on meth labs or trying to deny meth makers access to Sudafed and other over-the-counter products with pseudophedrine. One example of the latter was HB658, which was approved by the Missouri House but died in the Senate earlier this year. It would have made numerous over-the-counter drugs containing pseudophedrine available only by prescription.

Another access-blocking approach, already in place in some Missouri counties, is to require that the drugs be sold only from behind a counter and that buyers be required to provide identification. These transactions are kept in a a database to help authorities keep track of people who might be buying large quantities for illegal purposes.

Because neither crackdowns nor the other remedies have solved the meth crisis, Highland says lawmakers and the public should consider the potential solution created by its research. The company recently unveiled its tamper-resistant pseudoephedrine product, Tarex.

Highland's marketing director, Emilie Dolan, says, "Our specialty is being able to provide alternative solutions. We're trying to intervene early in the abuse process before people ever get the actual product. We're actually doing something before it gets into their hands. It circumvents the rest of the process, the making, distributing and abuse of it."

Highland officials were asked whether their product had been subjected to independent testing. Dolan said, "With such a high confidence level in our technology, we are very open to independent testing. We are actually pursuing an independent and respected testing source right now, as their findings would certainly add to our product's credibility."

"This is an incredibly important area in terms of the economic cost (of meth abuse) to the nation, in terms of cost from a policing point of view, and the impact on families," says Jim Bausch, the president and CEO of Highland. "The problem is quite large."

Meth in Missouri

Last year, Missouri reported 1,960 cases involving meth labs. Welcome as these drug busts might be, they come with a high price tag. The state's Division of Drug and Alcohol Abuse estimates that the clean-up cost associated with a meth lab is between $2,000 and $3,000. That's not counting the expenses of treating victims or law enforcement and court expenses associated with analyzing confiscated substances and arresting, trying and convincting those associated with the labs.

The Missouri Highway Patrol is all too aware of the headache that meth has posed for law enforcement across Missouri. Capt. Bill Hull, the agency's spokesperson, says the problem shows no sign of easing. He is pleased that Missouri is no longer the nation's meth capital; that designation now belongs to Tennessee. But he notes that Missouri still ranks second and that it is likely to surpass last year's 1,960 lab incidents by the end of this year.

The problem is serious in places like Franklin County, where Lewis, the patent attorney, lives. But it's worse in Jefferson County. Authorities reported 41 meth lab incidents last year in Franklin County and 116 in Jefferson County. They also counted 61 in St. Charles, 38 in St. Louis County and eight in St. Louis.

Hull says the numbers do not necessarily reflect the scope of the problem in any particular location. He confirms that meth makers prefer to operate in rural areas as a way to prevent detection.

Bill Marbaker, director of the Patrol's Crime Lab Division, says no single approach has solved the meth problem, But he says that places that have imposed tough restrictions on retail sales of over-the-counter drugs, such as Sudafed, have seen drops in meth labs.

The problem, he says, is that meth makers always seem to be one step ahead of the law. They move out of a community or state with restrictions and set up shop elsewhere. In instances where states or communities have required identifications for buying ingredients to make the illicit drug, several different people are sent to various locations to buy the Sudafed for the meth cook, Marbarker says.

Marbaker calls meth "one of the most dangerous drugs we've ever seen out there. It just totally absorbs a person's life, a no-win situation. It's not just the people who are using it. It's people who are cooking it in homes where children are being exposed to toxic chemicals, not to mention the fires and explosions that take place with the chemicals they are using."

Without endorsing any remedy, such as the one proposed by Highland, Hull says, "Anything that can be done to restrict the removal of pseudoephedrine from the methamphetamine cooks is a good thing for law enforcement."

Lewis, the patent attorney and chemist, says addressing the problem shouldn't mean inconveniencing others who might have legitimate reasons for buying cold medicine.

"People who are not abusing drugs and have a sick child or an allergy attack should be able to walk into Walmart at 10 o'clock at night and buy the product," she says. "Some people are not happy with behind the counter (solutions) and others are not happy with prescription only (solutions). We feel we have a way of making everybody happy and making our community safer."

Funding for the Beacon's health reporting is provided in part by the Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization that aims to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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