UNION, Mo. – The meth problem in Union has gotten so bad that someone with a drug habit stole the light shades outside Marilyn Roark's house. She got them back, but they were unusable.
"They had made them into bongs for the meth," she said.
Another time, Bob Barton Jr., working as a carpenter on a homebuilding project, couldn't find his boss. "I came around the house and there he was, with a lighter and aluminum foil and a straw, smoking meth," Barton said.
In small Midwestern towns in the middle of meth country, folks are frustrated with the failure of many measures to control the scourge: putting cold medicines with the key methamphetamine ingredient pseudoephedrine behind pharmacy counters, requiring customers to show IDs, and limiting the number of cold pills someone can buy.
So some communities are taking bolder steps.
This week, Union became the second U.S. town to pass a law requiring prescriptions for cold and allergy medications like Sudafed, Claritin D and Aleve Cold & Sinus that contain pseudoephedrine. Washington, Mo., another meth-cursed town nearby, passed its own such law back in June.
They and other towns are trying to keep up with meth cooks who deftly exploit loopholes in the law or shift to the simpler new "shake-and-bake" method of production that requires only a small amount of the decongestant.
Union Mayor Mike Livengood said he would prefer a statewide prescription-only law. "But they don't seem like they want to address it," he said. "We figured at the grass-roots level we'd start at the bottom and work our way up, and maybe they'll realize we're serious about this issue."
The new law's critics include the Missouri Medical Association, Missouri Retailers Association and the Missouri Pharmacy Association. Many in the pharmacy industry say such laws will make it more difficult and expensive for those who are sick to get relief.
Some residents of Union, with a population of about 8,000, aren't happy either.
"It's going to be a hardship for people who use the medicines," said retiree John Wittrock, fighting a case of the sniffles. "I mean, I need it right now."
"Meth is definitely a problem," he added, but meth makers "can just go to the next town to get what they need."
Washington and Union, six miles apart, are fast-growing towns in a scenic part of the state about 50 miles from St. Louis. A growing number of suburbanites are moving to the area in search of small-town life that is still near enough to the amenities of a metropolitan area.
Drug Enforcement Administration statistics show that Missouri annually has far more meth lab incidents — arrests, dump sites and seizures — than any other state. Last year, there were nearly 1,500 — more than twice as many as in Indiana, the No. 2 state.
Through July 31, Missouri already had 966 meth lab incidents this year. For many years, Franklin County — home to Union and Washington — has been at or near the top of the list. The mayor cited three meth crimes in Union just last week.
Five years ago, Oklahoma became the first state to put medications containing pseudoephedrine behind pharmacy counters and to require people who want to buy it to show photo identification and sign for the medicine. More than 20 other states and the federal government followed suit.
In 2006, Oregon became the first and only state with a statewide prescription-for-pseudoephedrine law. It has been a huge success, said Craig Prins, executive director of Oregon's Criminal Justice Commission. Before the law, Oregon had about 400 meth lab incidents annually, Prins said. Last year, it had 20.
"Meth is still our No. 1 problem because it's still smuggled in," Prins said. "There's no question it still fuels crime in Oregon. But in the past, cops spent a lot of their time in cleanup suits, cleaning up meth sites. Now, they're concentrating on going after the criminals."
Other states, including Oklahoma and California, are considering similar laws. In Oklahoma, a state lawmaker plans to introduce the legislation next year. Many in Missouri are also pushing for a statewide prescription-only law. The state attorney general's office said 95 of Missouri's 115 county prosecutors have signed a petition supporting such a measure.
Mary Frances Faraji, a spokeswoman for Claritin D maker Schering-Plough, said the company opposes laws requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine products. "We feel this places an added burden on patients who need an effective decongestant," she said.
Johnson & Johnson, the maker of Sudafed, and Bayer HealthCare, which produces Aleve, did not immediately return calls for comment Wednesday.
"It's not only an inconvenience, it increases the cost of health care," said Robert Elfinger, a spokesman for Deerfield, Ill.-based Walgreen Co., the nation's largest pharmacy chain. "Now you have to see a doctor, set an appointment and then go to the pharmacy to purchase the medication."
But so far, pharmacists in Union say they haven't seen an outcry from customers.
"I think the benefits outweigh any inconvenience because meth is such a problem in this area," said Matt Carlisle, president of Rinderer Drugs, which has a pharmacy in Union. "People in this town are tired of the meth. We're tired of it, too."