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St. Louis Company Develops Process to Thwart Meth Cookers

St. Louis Company Develops Process to Thwart Meth Cookers [St. Louis Post-Dispatch]

From St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO) (August 21, 2011)

Aug. 21--A small specialty pharmaceutical company based in St. Louis says that it has developed a new chemical lock to thwart the efforts of backwoods chemists cooking methamphetamine.

The patented technology, owned by Highland Pharmaceuticals LLC, is designed to make it extremely difficult to extract pseudoephedrine -- the primary ingredient -- from common cold and allergy drugs such as Sudafed and Mucinex.

The new process, used in the manufacture of such medications, would turn the pseudoephedrine into an unusable, jelly-like substance when drug-cookers try to extract it, said Jim Bausch, president of Highland Pharmaceuticals.

"A highly trained scientist in a very sophisticated lab could get around it," Bausch said, "but most of the meth is being made out in the woods in the Ozarks."

If deployed successfully, this "extraction-resistant technology," which Bausch declines to describe in detail, would save time and money for retail pharmacists, as well as tax dollars. State governments are spending countless resources on law enforcement strategies as well as the cost of health care and social services to combat America's methamphetamine habit. Missouri is among the states with the highest number of busted meth labs.

Highland officials say their chemical lock would not only frustrate the outlaws who make methamphetamine, but also give regulators a reason to put pseudoephedrine products with this added protection back on store shelves where these medicines would be more accessible to consumers, instead of behind the counter.

But the potential market for Highland's chemical process remains unclear. Its success probably depends on state lawmakers' deciding to either require drug manufacturers to install chemical locks in their pseudoephedrine drugs, or at least permit medicines using such protections to be sold over the counter without identity checks.

Highland also has at least one competitor, Acura Pharmaceuticals, based in Palatine, Ill., which has developed a similar technology -- called Nexafed -- as part of its line of drugs aimed at preventing prescription drug abuse. Acura has contracted with a company to begin producing Nexafed pills, and those medicines will be available later this year, said Peter Clemens, the company's chief financial officer.

Law enforcement officials have voiced mixed reactions about these efforts.

"It would seem to me much more cost effective to require a prescription for pseudoephedrine, instead of going to the trouble of changing the chemical composition of these drugs," said Lt. Doc Coombs of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department.

Sgt. Jason Grellner, a sheriff's detective in Franklin County and expert on methamphetamine, said he was "cautiously optimistic."

"If it works, it'd probably be the best thing I've seen in a long time, but we've heard about these kinds of products since 1998 and we've been told by industry that it can't be done," he said.

The competing chemical locks for pseudoephedrine may soon be tested by a state crime laboratory in Oregon. Under an Oregon statute, pseudoephedrine drugs that are produced with a strong chemical lock can be sold over the counter; those medicines without a sufficient chemical lock will need a prescription.

Highland, a privately held firm, has 15 employees. Founded in 2000, it has worked with manufacturers to develop cough and cold products for children. It has also worked with a private laboratory in St. Louis to develop anti-extraction technology for medicines, with the help of a federal grant from the Department of Health and Human Services.

Highland has already tried unsuccessfully to interest manufacturers in using a similar process to prevent the extraction of opoids from the painkiller oxycodone; addicts crush these pills to sniff, snort or inject the narcotic. The company is still trying to obtain approval from the Food and Drug Administration for use of its technology on oxycodone, a prescription drug.

Drugs that contain pseudoephedrine, on the other hand, are sold over the counter and generally do not require a prescription. Bausch said FDA approval wasn't necessary for applying extraction-resistant technology. Still, drugs containing pseudoephedrine have become increasingly regulated by states, which have passed stop-gap measures requiring consumers to show identification upon purchase and to have their purchases recorded in a database.

Bausch said the new technology would add some cost to certain cold medicines because manufacturers would need to retool their factories.

He said those costs could be easily regained if medicines with pseudoephedrine were able to be sold without the necessity of identity checks. Highland is trying to drum up support from state lawmakers and drug manufacturers.

"The reality is that they'd be slightly more expensive," he said. "They'd go up in price, but it's not like prices are going to double."


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Posted: August 2011