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Pittsburg Panel To Consider Pseudoephedrine Restrictions Aimed At Throttling Meth Cooks

PITTSBURG, Kan. — When it comes to one law, Pittsburg is an island.

In Missouri, Joplin and Branson have adopted ordinances in recent years requiring those who purchase medicine with pseudoephedrine — a key ingredient in the manufacture of methamphetamine — to have a prescription.

On the Kansas side, Baxter Springs, Galena, Columbus, Parsons, Girard, Arma, Chanute and Fort Scott also have approved such ordinances. Last month, Iola joined the list.

Pittsburg, the last city with a pharmacy in this area that does not have such a law on the books, has yet to formally consider an ordinance for restricted sale.

But the time is coming.

Last week at a City Commission study session, police Chief Melinda Hulvey told the panel that the ability of people to buy pseudoephedrine in Pittsburg has become a liability and that taking steps to restrict sales would present an obstacle to those cooking up local batches of meth.

“Simply scheduling the drug is not going to eradicate methamphetamine in Pittsburg — but it can, and most certainly will, have some impact on local domestic lab production,” she said.

She said that because Pittsburg stands alone in its allowance of pseudoephedrine sales over the counter, those seeking to purchase it for meth production are coming to town to get it.

Adopting an ordinance, though, comes with a downside, agree pharmacists, city commissioners and those in law enforcement, including Hulvey: It means cold and allergy sufferers must obtain a prescription, which in some instances would first require a doctor’s office visit and perhaps a co-pay.

Others question whether such a restriction will have an impact on meth sales and use, as production in Mexico has increased dramatically in recent years.

Collectively, the Pittsburg city commissioners agreed after their study session that they would like to formally consider an ordinance restricting sales, but they have not yet set a date on which to do so.


In 2005, Kansas lawmakers passed the Sheriff Matt Samuels Chemical Control Act, which reduces the number of over-the-counter cold pills containing pseudoephedrine a person can purchase at one time and requires customers to show photo ID and sign a register when purchasing the regulated medicines.

The bill was modeled after a law in Oklahoma, which reports it has experienced a sharp decrease in the number of active meth labs as a result of the restrictions.

Electronic monitoring systems, such as Kansas’ K-TRACS, which went online in 2010, monitor prescription drug purchases and interface with data from other states.

Pharmacies keep track of everyone who purchases pseudoephedrine by entering names and contact information into the database, which is accessible by drug task forces and other law enforcement officials.

Missouri also operates an online database to track pseudoephedrine sales — something that Joplin police Sgt. Chad Allison, who heads up the Jasper County Drug Task Force, said his detectives use periodically when setting up stings.

Despite electronic tracking and limits on purchases, meth problems have persisted in part because of “smurfing,” according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office and local law enforcement agencies.

“Smurfing” engages consumers to purchase their legal limit of pseudoephedrine-based products, then sell them to those who manufacture meth.


Allison said a 2012 Joplin ordinance that restricts the sale of pseudoephedrine to prescription-only has had a positive impact.

“Basically, it was out of control,” he said. “We were getting called out several times a week to process a lab and take people to jail for cooking meth.”

Allison said that since the ordinance was passed, the task force has “definitely seen a decrease of lab calls we’re responding to.”

According to information provided by his department, the task force responded to 80 meth labs in 2010. In 2013, it responded to 50.

“We know meth use isn’t going to stop, but at least them actually cooking it here, which makes it a danger to us, to firemen, to our community, has decreased,” Allison said. “We see it being transferred up here from other areas, like Mexico, but it’s not near the quantity here that we saw previously.”

Allison said such ordinances do have a downside for honest pseudoephedrine buyers.

“It does make it a little bit more of a challenge to go get it for a cold or allergies (with a prescription), but I’d rather them have to deal with that just occasionally rather than having daily access by criminals, where you’re having homes catch on fire and motel rooms explode because of labs,” he said.


Cherokee County Sheriff David Groves, who spoke in support of such a measure to the Pittsburg City Commission, said he believes such ordinances have helped reduce the number of meth labs operating in Cherokee County since being put in place a year ago in every town with a pharmacy.

Groves said his county had 35 to 45 meth busts a year before that, but it has had just four meth labs since then.


Some municipalities have chosen to put the matter to a public vote. In Wellington, Kansas, for example, voters in 2011 weighed in on an ordinance that would have banned over-the-counter sales of any medicine containing pseudoephedrine. They rejected the plan by a vote of 652 to 229.

In Springfield and Nixa, Missouri, city councils have debated the issue for months and have considered putting it to a popular vote.

Law enforcement officials in both cities have said it would help combat the problem, but councils have been split and hesitant to impose regulations that would pose inconvenience and extra cost to law-abiding consumers.

Too, they reasoned, restricting the ingredient locally would not lessen a problem they have seen exacerbated by Mexican production of the drug, which now accounts for as much as 80 percent of the meth sold in the U.S., according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Seizures of meth along the Southwest border have more than quadrupled in recent years. DEA records reviewed by The Associated Press show that the amount of seized meth jumped from slightly more than 4,000 pounds in 2007 to more than 16,000 pounds in 2011.


The Pittsburg Police Department sent a written survey to six pharmacies in Pittsburg to gain input, and four of the six supported an ordinance that would restrict sales. Three out of the four said it would create an inconvenience for customers, but none said it would create an economic hardship for the pharmacy.

Pittsburg police and other city officials also spoke with the staff at the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas, which serves about 25,000 low-income residents and has a pharmacy.

Mayor Monica Murnan, a longtime advocate for low-income individuals through the Family Resource Center, said the group learned that Community Health Center would be an excellent outreach for those who could not afford doctor visits in order to get prescriptions.

“For me, after doing quite a bit of research and talking, I could check off that it would hurt a big group of folks,” Murnan said. “It makes sense to move forward.”

Pittsburg resident Brian Sullivan, owner of Lindburg Pharmacy, which has locations in north and south Pittsburg, said the city is “caught between a rock and a hard place.”

“We’re not breaking new ground here,” he said. “We’ve got other municipalities and states all around us who already have gotten more stringent rules. We’ve discussed it, and it seems to be inevitable.

“We don’t want to be the place of least resistance. It makes illegitimate seekers flow into our area, come to our pharmacy.”

Sullivan, who during pharmacy school learned in toxicology courses the strength of meth’s addiction, has also come to understand the lengths to which those who want to purchase ingredients will go.

“We know that they hire people who are innocent; they pay them to come in and buy it,” he said. “But there are deterrents — electronic monitoring systems that flag sales when they ring up — to prevent that.

“And because we are a locally owned pharmacy, we also put into place another deterrent a few years ago. We tell customers, if you are not an established customer of ours — if you don’t regularly get prescriptions for other medicines filled here — then we don’t sell them anything with pseudoephedrine.”

Sullivan said that if the City Commission approved an ordinance requiring prescriptions, it would not change the success of his business “at all.”

“Is it an inconvenience for the customer? Yes, and no,” he said. “Because of our relationship with the medical community here in Pittsburg, I can just pick up the phone and call a doctor and get an oral prescription over the phone so that it doesn’t require a customer to schedule and pay for an office visit.”

Sullivan’s brother, who is a Pittsburg physician, and sister-in-law, who is a nurse practitioner, said they would be agreeable to such a practice.

Global issue

LIKE THE UNITED STATES, Mexico has tightened laws and regulations on pseudoephedrine, though some labs still are able to obtain large amounts from China and India, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.