Less than a week after a meth lab explosion in Old Town killed a man and resulted in the arrest of four others, the Maine Legislature will consider a bill that would require a prescription to buy certain kinds of cold medicines used in the manufacture of the drug.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Janice Cooper, D-Yarmouth, is set for a public hearing Wednesday at the State House. If the bill becomes law, Maine would join Oregon and Mississippi as the only states in the nation to require a prescription to purchase certain decongestant cold medications, including Sudafed D and Claritin D.

Federal law already requires that such medications be behind the counter, and consumers must show identification before purchasing them. Also, only small amounts can be bought at one time.

“Right now, all you have to do is go to the hardware store and then go to the pharmacy and get the meds, and you have all you need to make meth,” Cooper said. “It’s real easy, too easy.”

The bill would require a prescription for any cold medication that contains ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, which can be used in the manufacture of methamphetamine.

Other easily obtained products, such as fertilizer, lithium batteries and plastic soda bottles also are used to make meth. The combination of chemicals used in the process is highly flammable and unstable, and many people have been injured or killed nationwide when the labs explode.

Although meth use is about 10 times less prevalent than opioid use, it’s on the rise across the country, with about 1.7 million users in 2015, according to the National Survey on Drug Abuse and Health.

Meth use in 2015 – the most recent year data were available – was mostly concentrated outside of the New England states, where 25,000 people said in a survey they had used the drug in the previous 12 months, while the problem was much more widespread in the South and Midwest.

FEW PARTIES HAVE TAKEN A POSITION

However, there are indications that meth use is spreading in Maine, with 125 meth labs found in 2016, according to the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. That was up from 56 in 2015 and 37 in 2014.

There have been 18 meth labs busted so far in 2017, which, if the trend holds, will track close to the 2015 numbers.

The MDEA, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, the Maine Pharmacy Association and the Maine Medical Association have not yet taken a position on Cooper’s bill.

Roy McKinney, director of the MDEA, said it’s not clear whether the decrease in meth lab cases in 2017 will continue. He said increased funding for the MDEA from both the U.S. Department of Justice and the Maine Legislature in 2016 helped police more aggressively investigate and prosecute those involved in the manufacture of meth.

Gordon Smith, executive vice president of the Maine Medical Association, which represents physicians before the Legislature, said the initial reaction to the bill from doctors was negative, but they are willing to listen.

“The doctors didn’t want to be spending a lot of time writing prescriptions for Sudafed,” Smith said.

Betty Harris, president of the Maine Pharmacy Association, said while that organization hasn’t yet taken a position on the bill, consumers can easily purchase cold medication over the internet or go out of state.

“I wouldn’t suggest that this would be a great way to stop the problem,” Harris said. “Your corner drugstore is not the only way you can pick up these medications.”

But Harris also said that passage of the bill wouldn’t impose a major burden on patients, who can choose effective cold medications that don’t contain pseudoephedrine and can be purchased over the counter. She said if patients need medication with pseudoephedrine, they could call their primary care physician.

QUESTIONING EFFECTIVENESS

Whether such laws are effective in helping to reduce meth labs is unclear. A Mother Jones article from 2013 hailed the Mississippi law for cutting back on meth labs.

But a study by the National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws, a nonpartisan Iowa-based think tank that examines policy issues for state and local governments, found that evidence on the effectiveness of the laws in Oregon and Mississippi was inconclusive.

“While there is no doubt that the number of meth lab incidents decreased in both Oregon and Mississippi after the laws were implemented, the underlying explanatory factors about the decline remain arguably unknown,” the report said.

Carlos Gutiérrez, vice president of state and local government affairs for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which represents the over-the-counter medicine industry, said in a statement that the proposed Maine law is “not a solution for the methamphetamine problem.”

“The vast majority of Mainers who rely on these medicines purchase them for legitimate healthcare reasons, so a prescription restriction would impose an unfair burden on these law-abiding consumers, when, instead, laws should be targeted at criminals,” Gutierrez said in a statement.

MORE METH ARRESTS IN MAINE

The meth lab explosion that claimed a man’s life in Old Town occurred Tuesday.

Agents arrested a couple who rented a Brunswick Street apartment, Jason Smith, 38, and Carrie Ballanger, 31, and charged them with operating a meth lab. Also arrested were 47-year-old Don Dube of Glenburn and Sue Smith, a 36-year-old transient. All four were taken to the Penobscot County Jail and charged with aggravated unlawful operation of a meth lab.

Drug agents had been looking for a fifth person in connection with the lab, and Thursday afternoon they found his body in a house at 465 Brunswick St. Fire marshals suspect the man was seriously burned in the fire and fled the scene. Authorities did not immediately release his identity, pending notification of next of kin.

Maine has been grappling with more meth arrests in recent years.

McKinney said Maine law enforcement often pursues charges not only for the suspect who does the “cooking,” but also all those who may purchase and provide the various chemicals or products used in the process.

He said all his agency’s meth-related responses in recent years have been a result of the so-called “shake and bake” or “one pot” labs, which are simpler and easier methods of manufacturing meth. The cost to clean up a meth lab averages just under $5,000, he said, compared to $10,000 a few years ago.

“Every crime scene is different,” McKinney said. “It’s a double-edged sword there. It’s forced us to look at our business practice and streamline that without jeopardizing the safety of the personnel involved.”

McKinney noted that state laws have been amended to make it easier for law enforcement to investigate meth-related crime, particularly a 2011 statute that set up an electronic registry for those purchasing over-the-counter pseudoephedrine.

“That certainly has been a good tool for law enforcement when we are investigating these incidents rather than having to go around to all these various pharmacies where it is sold,” McKinney said.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

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Scott Thistle can be contacted at:

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