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AUGUSTA -- Concerned about the epidemic problem of methamphetamine use in other states, Maine lawmakers are backing new restrictions on cold and allergy medicines.
More than 100 lawmakers, including both Democratic and Republicans leaders, and Gov. John Baldacci's administration support new rules for sales of over-the-counter remedies, according to a report in the Portland (Maine) Press.
The medicines, which include Advil Cold and Sinus, Sudafed Severe Cold and Tylenol Cold, have a key ingredient that is used to make the street drug meth.
Lawmakers said Monday that Maine does not have a meth problem like that of Western and Midwestern states, but the numbers of arrests and people seeking treatment are rising in Maine, and once the problem increases, it will become difficult to stop, they said.
"I believe you get one chance of getting in front of this drug," said Maine Attorney General Steven Rowe, whose office wrote the proposed regulations.
The Press reported that a legislative committee heard testimony Monday on the new restrictions, which the House and Senate could vote on as early as this week.
The regulations include limiting purchases to three packages of a remedy per store visit, and making it a crime to possess more than nine grams of pseudoephedrine or a similar meth ingredient. Nine grams is the equivalent of 300 pills of a cold or allergy remedy.
Lobbyists for retailers say they support the new rules in general, but object to certain details, which they see as too restrictive for consumers.
"Hundreds of customers each day would be affected by this," said Martin Greeley, vice president of government relations for the Hannaford supermarket chain.
The major sticking point is a requirement that only a pharmacist or a pharmacy technician may sell the pill forms of the remedies. There is also concern about requiring pharmacies to place the pills behind their counters.
The pills are available now at a range of stores, from convenience stores to small grocers.
Lobbyists for grocers and other stores said their clients should be able to continue selling the remedies, particularly in a largely rural state where access to a pharmacy can be difficult.
Retailers want lawmakers to back less restrictive rules, such as requiring pills to be kept in locked cases, as tobacco products are, or in sight of a cashier.
"There are examples of something in between," said John Melrose of the Maine Grocers Association.
The National Conference of State Legislatures is tracking at least 20 states that are trying to curb the production of meth through new laws.
Blake Harrison, a policy specialist for the conference, said requiring pharmacists and their assistants to sell the remedies falls on the stricter end of the spectrum of laws being proposed.
But Rowe and lawmakers who are pushing for the new law say Maine does not have a choice. States that have tried to ease their way into regulating the remedies have soon found themselves making their laws stricter, because the problem of meth surges.
"We recognize the signs and know what works to prevent the spread," said Kimberly Johnson, director of the state Office of Substance Abuse.
Officials stressed that the prohibition would be just on pills. The regulations would not affect gel caps and liquids, which Rowe said meth labs aren't using to produce the drug. Also, small daily-dose packets would be exempt from the new regulations.
The Maine Civil Liberties Union is objecting to another detail of the proposed rules, according to the newspaper: a provision to let pharmacies keep logs of who is buying the pills.
A similar meth prevention bill, proposed by state Sen. Peter Mills, R-Cornville, would require stores to keep logs.
There are other differences in that proposal, but Mills said he supports the proposal Rowe and a majority of House and Senate members are pushing.