CHARLESTON – CVS Pharmacy sales of a cold medication that’s also used to manufacture illegal methamphetamine have doubled over the past year in West Virginia, according to a Charleston Gazette analysis of sales data released last week.
CVS stores are now West Virginia’s No. 1 seller of pseudoephedrine, a key meth-making ingredient sold under brand names such as Sudafed and Allegra-D.
“CVS stores are really crowding the top of the list,” said Mike Goff, a state Board of Pharmacy administrator and former State Police meth lab investigator.
Michael DeAngelis, a spokesman for CVS, said Friday that the drugstore chain already is taking major steps to keep the cold medicine from being diverted for illegal use.
“Our policies and procedures are designed to prevent illegitimate purchases,” DeAngelis said.
Last month, CVS pharmacies sold 11,506 boxes of the cold medication statewide — up from 5,586 boxes in March 2013, according to a pseudoephedrine tracking system called NPLEx. CVS has 50 stores in West Virginia.
Rite Aid, which has twice as many stores in West Virginia, sold 7,003 boxes of the nasal decongestant that can be used to make meth. West Virginia’s 37 Walmart stores sold 7,903 boxes.
CVS pseudoephedrine sales jumped significantly in November, after Rite Aid stores stopped selling cold medications, such as Sudafed 12 Hour and Sudafed 24 Hour, that have pseudoephedrine as their only active ingredient. CVS still sells Sudafed and other similar generic-version, single-ingredient pseudoephedrine products that meth manufacturers covet, because they yield potent meth without byproducts.
Immediately after Rite Aid stores stopped stocking those medications, CVS pseudoephedrine sales increased from 4,500 boxes in October to 9,961 boxes in November.
CVS sales have increased every month since, reaching a high of 11,506 boxes last month.
Meanwhile, Rite Aid’s sales of the cold medication have dropped by half.
“Clearly, CVS has filled the void that Rite Aid left by the change in its store policy,” said Dr. Dan Foster, who headed a Kanawha County Commission task force that studied the role of pseudoephedrine in the region’s meth lab problem last year.
In February, CVS set new purchase limits that are more restrictive than those under West Virginia law, DeAngelis said. CVS customers can now buy no more than 3.6 grams of the cold medication each month, and no more than 24 grams, or about 10 boxes, per year.
State law allows people to buy 7.2 grams a month and 48 grams each year.
CVS also uses the NPLEx tracking system to block purchases from people who might try to circumvent its more-restrictive limits by shopping at multiple CVS stores.
“CVS is unwavering in its support of measures taken by the federal government and the states to keep [pseudoephedrine] out of the wrong hands,” DeAngelis said. “It is also our policy to decline the sale of a [pseudoephedrine] product if there is reason to believe that it is being purchased for any reason other than a legitimate purpose.”
Individual CVS stores also are now among the top-sellers of pseudoephedrine in West Virginia — a list previously dominated by Rite Aid and Walmart stores.
In March, a CVS pharmacy in Wheeling sold more boxes of pseudoephedrine than any other store in West Virginia. The Martinsburg CVS was the state’s second-largest seller of the cold medication.
In Kanawha County, the St. Albans CVS store sold the eighth-highest number of boxes in the state, while the Kanawha City CVS had the 14th largest total.
Five CVS stores were among West Virginia’s top 10 sellers of pseudoephedrine, and 16 CVS stores finished in the top 30.
Before last November, no individual CVS stores sold more than 240 boxes of pseudoephedrine in a single month. In March, two dozen CVS stores in West Virginia had purchases that exceeded that amount.
“The Sudafed supply isn’t going away,” Goff said. “It’s just moving from store to store. You get rid of it somewhere and it moves somewhere else.”
Just as CVS pharmacy purchases have climbed in recent months, Rite Aid’s sales have dropped significantly.
In March 2013, Rite Aid stores sold 14,360 boxes of pseudoephedrine statewide, compared to 7,000 boxes last month, according to NPLEx sales data.
Total pseudoephedrine purchases at all West Virginia pharmacies dropped 25 percent between March 2013 and last month — largely because of Rite Aid’s store policy change.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is investigating Rite Aid stores and their sales of pseudoephedrine.
Last year, the DEA’s Tactical Diversion Unit requested scores of records from the West Virginia Board of Pharmacy about Rite Aid sales of the cold medication that can be used to make meth.
In 2012, a former Rite Aid pharmacist told a legislative committee that the chain drugstore awarded bonuses to pharmacists in West Virginia based on pseudoephedrine sales. Pharmacists also have alleged that Rite Aid dedicated specific cash registers for sales of the cold medicine. Rite Aid has denied the allegations.
Though Rite Aid pharmacies no longer stock Sudafed and other single-ingredient pseudoephedrine products, the stores still sell cold medications, such as Claritin-D, Mucinex-D and Allegra-D, which combine pseudoephedrine with other ingredients. Meth makers don’t typically buy combination products because they include antihistamines and pain relievers. They’re also more expensive.
Rite Aid stores also now carry displays promoting tamper-resistant pseudoephedrine products, such as Nexafed, that criminals can’t easily convert into meth.
Last year, West Virginia law enforcement agencies seized 530 meth labs in West Virginia, a record number.
During this year’s legislative session, the Senate passed a bill that would require people to get a doctor’s prescription before they could buy medications containing pseudoephedrine. The House gutted the bill, and the legislation died on the last night of the session.
Last week, Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper vowed to do “whatever it takes” to reduce meth labs and curb sales of medications that fuel the clandestine labs. Police busted more than 150 labs in Kanawha County last year.
“If I have to, I’ll put a deputy’s car in the parking lot of every one of these stores,” Carper said. “I’m fed up with it.”