Sales of over-the-counter cold medications containing the key ingredient used to make methamphetamine surged last month in three St. Louis County cities bordering St. Charles County, which on Aug. 30 began requiring prescriptions for the products.
A statewide database showed sales at pharmacies in Bridgeton jumped by 81 percent last month compared with August. The increases in Maryland Heights and Chesterfield were 59 percent and 51 percent, respectively.
During the same period, sales in all of St. Louis County increased by about 25 percent and across Missouri by about 7 percent.
The statistics were released by Sgt. Jason Grellner of the Franklin County Sheriff's Department, who has been pushing for prescription requirements across the state to try to crack down on meth.
Grellner contends that meth-makers from St. Charles County are responsible for most of the buying surge across the county line.
But Robert Elfinger, a spokesman for the Walgreens chain, attributed the sales increase to law-abiding St. Charles County residents.
"Our pharmacy staffs at these locations believe what's likely occurring is that patients with allergies and seasonal illnesses are traveling to their locations to purchase their medicine rather than making a doctor's appointment to get a prescription," Elfinger said.
Joy Krieger — executive director of the St. Louis chapter of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, which opposes prescription requirements — said another factor likely is the flaring up of allergies for some people when the weather changes. Ragweed and pollen season runs from Aug. 15 through October, said Dr. Susan Berdy, a local allergist. The Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which represents pharmaceutical companies, said sales of all types of cold and cough remedies peak in the fall and spring.
The biggest increase among the stores in the three cities was at the Walgreens at 12345 St. Charles Rock Road in Bridgeton. Grellner said 1,281 packages of products with pseudoephedrine or ephedrine were sold there in September — almost twice as many as the 652 in August.
Other sharp increases were at the Walmart in Chesterfield Valley (815 packages in September from 533 in August); the Walgreens on Long Road in Chesterfield (750 packages from 365) and the Walgreens on Dorsett Road in Maryland Heights (884 packages from 566.)
Sales also soared in Troy, in Lincoln County on St. Charles County's northern border. A Walgreens there sold 818 packages last month, up from 434 in August.
Across St. Louis County there were variations in the percentage of sales increases. The percentage increase in several areas exceeded the 25 percent countywide total but were not as pronounced as in Bridgeton, Maryland Heights and Chesterfield.
For example, pseudoephedrine sales went up by about 41 percent in the Creve Coeur area and about 37 percent in Brentwood. A few stores scattered throughout the area had higher rates of increase.
The St. Charles County ordinance, which includes cities and unincorporated areas, was passed by the County Council in July at the request of Sheriff Tom Neer. The county became the most populous jurisdiction in Missouri with a prescription mandate, joining about 45 smaller areas. Among the others are Franklin County and the cities of Wildwood, Ellisville, Eureka, Festus, Crystal City and De Soto. A prescription requirement in Troy went into effect Oct. 1.
Lt. Craig McGuire, a spokesman for Neer, said it's too soon to know whether the prescription requirement will cut down on meth labs in St. Charles County as Neer and others hope. The county ranked second statewide to Jefferson County in meth lab incidents from January through August.
Grellner, the incoming president of the Missouri Narcotics Officers Association, said the new sales statistics could help make the case for expanding the prescription requirement to other areas.
However, officials in Bridgeton, Maryland Heights and Chesterfield said prescription requirements haven't been seriously considered in those cities.
"At this point in time, I don't know that it causes me concern," Chesterfield Mayor Bruce Geiger said of the sales statistics. "I'm not surprised that they've gone up, especially in the valley. We have a significant number of people from St. Charles County who work and shop in the valley."
Geiger and Capt. Ed Nestor, a spokesman for Chesterfield police, said their city hasn't had a large meth problem — statements echoed by police in Maryland Heights and Bridgeton.
Nestor said the statistics are interesting but that additional analysis is needed to see if there are other fluctuations in sales in other months.
Grellner said the database, which began operating last fall, has shown sales statewide between about 135,000 and 145,000 packages each month. Lt. Steve James, commander of Bridgeton police's detective bureau, said the department has a good working relationship with Walgreens and "if they think there's a problem" with suspicious cold-pill buyers, they would be in contact.
Bridgeton's mayor, Conrad Bowers, said it would make more sense to adopt a prescription requirement statewide or in all of St. Louis County than to do it piecemeal city by city. Efforts in the Legislature to pass a statewide law have failed repeatedly.
Mac Scott, a spokesman for St. Louis County Executive Charlie A. Dooley, said officials in his administration have had "ongoing conversations" about whether to seek a countywide prescription requirement but haven't made a decision.
St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch said he prefers a statewide or nationwide prescription requirement and is neutral on whether the county should adopt one. He said he would support it if adopted by the County Council.
He said he believed that at least some of the increase in pseudoephedrine sales in Bridgeton, Maryland Heights and Chesterfield was due to meth-makers from St. Charles County. He said that had happened previously at stores in Fenton after prescription requirements were passed for parts of Jefferson County.
"It's a fact that we are getting in St. Louis County additional customers for this product that are not using it to address the common cold," Fitch said. "They are clearly buying this for illegal purposes."
Supporters of such laws say requiring prescriptions severely limit the ability of meth producers to obtain pseudoephedrine.
Opponents say law-abiding citizens are inconvenienced unfairly by prescription requirements and some pay more by having to see a physician. Among opponents are the Missouri Pharmacy Association and the Consumer Healthcare Products Association.
They argue that the new statewide database tracking sales should be given more time to help police find meth-makers. Grellner says the database is ineffective and that a current state law limiting how many cold pills a person can buy per month hasn't kept them from meth-makers who send people store to store.
Shane Anthony and Christine Byers of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.