WASHINGTON, Mo. • There was success in the failure of an unusual band of methamphetamine cooks who gathered in Washington last fall to test a new ingredient. It took longer than usual for flames to appear in their two-liter plastic bottle, and the yield was black liquid instead of clear crystals.
There was no meth.
Narcotics officers bumped fists with pharmaceutical executives as they realized they may have confirmed the elusive answer to supplying sinus sufferers with accessible relief without also providing criminals the key ingredient to a mind-bending drug of abuse.
On Wednesday, a legislative committee in Jefferson City took the discovery into account while considering a bill that would require prescriptions for decongestants containing pseudoephedrine. There would be an exemption for any meth-resistant form, such as the one created by Highland Pharmaceuticals, of Maryland Heights.
U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, also are aware of the product, their spokespeople said, and are awaiting the results of Drug Enforcement Administration testing before considering how to fit it into federal anti-meth legislation.
The DEA confirmed Wednesday that results of it preliminary testing, using standard meth cook methods, were "indeed promising." The agency said it was still testing the product and "is not in a position to release any information until a thorough and complete analysis has been completed."
Jason Grellner, a Franklin County sheriff's sergeant in the forefront of the battle against meth, says it's nothing less than a "game changer."
DEFEATING THE COOKS
Meth is made by using a concoction of household chemicals to modify pseudoephedrine. Officials responded with a federal law that limits purchases and requires signatures of purchasers — and a patchwork of local laws that in some communities require prescriptions.
It is cumbersome for consumers and ineffective against drug gangs that pay to enlist buyers.
Highland Pharmaceutical has worked for some time to develop Releva, a decongestant that chemically resists meth cooks' methods.
In November, some of its executives and chemists joined Grellner and other drug officers to try it out under realistic conditions. Because of the risk of explosion, the work was done at an outdoor firefighter training center in Washington, Mo.
"I was scared to death going in because that's not the kind of experiment I can do inside a laboratory," said Highland's president, Jim Bausch. "So I really couldn't test it in the way that abusers use it. That was the pivotal moment in this whole thing."
Bausch is seeking an exemption from the 2005 federal Combat Methamphetamine Act, to allow him to sell Releva as an ordinary over-the-counter medication.
Company spokeswoman Emilie Dolan said: "From a marketing perspective, we're waiting to see whether we can sell the product from store shelves because that would obviously give us an edge over the other products. But it could be ready for the market by midsummer."
Highland, founded in 2000, worked with a lab in St. Louis to develop anti-extraction technology for medicines, with a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The Releva technology began as a way to make animals more agreeable to taking medications, Bausch said.
"It wasn't luck, it was slaving over something for a long time and asking ourselves, 'How else can we use this?'" he explained. "Then we started learning what's going on in our backyard."
Bausch asked Grellner to test Releva. He said he did not pay Grellner for input.
Grellner was skeptical.
"I had no reason to believe they were lying, but they're also not street smart, they're chemists and not out there making meth," he explained.
He said he thought his meth-testing kits had failed when they didn't turn the characteristic blue during the experiment.
Bausch is tight-lipped about the chemistry; he would not allow the Post-Dispatch to visit the lab or photograph the chemists. He said the so-called Tarex technology within the Releva product essentially uses lipids, or fats, to help prevent pseudoephedrine from being extracted.
Bausch compares the consistency of the pill to chocolate. Grellner describes it as candle wax. It cannot be ground up, is not soluble and cannot be smoked, Bausch said.
Food and Drug Administration approval is not a problem, Bausch said, because all the ingredients are already individually approved for pharmaceutical use. The company proved in a lab that Releva's pseudoephedrine is released in gastrointestinal fluid, which he said is a requirement.
It's also being tested on people even though that is not required, Dolan said.
Joy Krieger, executive director of the St. Louis chapter of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation, remains skeptical.
"According to my allergists, this has not been tested on people, and we don't know if it's as effective as the pseudoephedrine that's available now," she said.
Highland has at least one competitor, Acura Pharmaceuticals, based in Palatine, Ill., which has developed a similar technology it calls Impede. Acura expects its product, called Nexafed, to be available later this year, said its president, Bob Jones.
He said his company has contracted with the Illinois State Police crime lab and a private company that teaches police how to make meth. Jones said his product does not yield any meth in two of the three cooking methods, and in the third yields only about half as much as other products.
"The paramount thing for us is the consumer," Jones said. "We took great efforts to design a product that looks and feels and acts exactly like what the consumer is currently used to."
Missouri state Rep. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, said he is confident he can get his bill, House Bill 658, passed this year to require prescriptions except for products from which less than 5 percent of the pseudoephedrine can be extracted. But opponents have lined up against requiring prescriptions at all, saying it would be unnecessarily burdensome and expensive.
Along with Krieger's organization, several lobbying groups — including AARP, the Missouri Pharmacy Association and Missouri Retailers Association — spoke against the bill at a hearing of the House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee.
"They are taking rights away from law-abiding citizens from Missouri," Krieger complained. "We have a tracking system in place that actually monitors every purchase. We need to enforce more strict penalties for people who are arrested for these crimes."
Meanwhile, Bausch said his company is already developing several variations of Releva to stay ahead of any meth cooks who may figure out how to defeat his product.
He explained, "There already is a Plan A and B."