Just in time for cold and flu season, common medications containing pseudoephedrine -from Sudafed to Tylenol Flu – are being taken off store shelves and put behind pharmacy counters to prevent their use in the illegal production of a highly addictive stimulant.

The new state law making it tougher to buy products containing pseudoephedrine goes into effect on Nov. 1. It is designed to prevent a methamphetamine addiction problem that has not hit Maine, but has reached epidemic proportions in other rural and low-income states.

Some national chains like Wal-Mart and Rite Aid already have taken the drugs off their shelves in Maine, having gone through the drill in other states with similar laws. Cards are now on the shelves where products used to be, directing customers to the pharmacy.

Local and regional stores, including the state’s most popular grocery chains, are just now dealing with the change, and smaller stores may have to stop carrying some products simply because of the space crunch behind the pharmacy counter. While the pharmacy will control the sale, prescriptions are not required.

The law targets solid tablets containing pseudoephedrine used to make methamphetamine, or “meth” for short, in makeshift labs. Liquid cold medications and gel caps will not be regulated.

“The most visible change to consumers is some of the products they we’re used to seeing on the drugstore shelves, or on grocery store shelves or department store shelves will only be available in the pharmacy,” said Chuck Dow of the state Attorney General’s office.

In stores where there is no pharmacy, the only pseudoephedrine tablets that will be available will be in single-dose foil packages that will be available in sight of the store clerk. The law limits the sale of the foil packages to three per customer.

The law also limits the amount of tablets that can be purchased at one time even from behind the pharmacy counter to three packages of no more than three grams each. Possession of more than nine grams of the tablets will be a crime under the new law.

Maine is following the lead of other states to crack down on homemade meth, which is feeding a growing addiction problem, particularly in the Midwest and Southwest.

While methamphetamine has been around for decades – once prescribed for everything from obesity to depression – the homemade stuff scares law enforcement officials because it can become so readily available using common household products, including the pseudoephedrine in cold tablets.

Not only is meth easily available in any part of the country through this homemade method, the labs also are prone to blowing up and the production leaves behind harmful chemical residues.

Kim Johnson, director of the Office of Substance Abuse, said the number of meth abuse cases is still very low in Maine, but now is the time to stop the problem.

“We have low numbers,” in terms of actual abuse cases and homemade labs but the percentage increase is growing, she said.

“The point is this,” Johnson said. “We’re seeing a slight increase that to me indicates the potential for the beginning of the problem. If we had identified that and acted in 1997 for prescription narcotics, we wouldn’t have the size of the problem that we have now.”

Johnson said addicts look “old and jittery,” and can have psychotic episodes that make them dangerous.

“It ages you enormously,” she said of the drug, which is a powerful stimulant that keeps its users awake and agitated. “A 20-year-old can look like they’re 45 after six months of use,” she said, “and the effect on your brain is enormous. It can make you psychotic and paranoid.”

Maine’s law is not as restrictive as some other states, where pharmacists are required to keep a log of who buys the cold medications containing pseudoephedrine. If, however, the meth problem becomes worse and “poses a threat to public health,” the law does allow the director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency to require logs be kept.

Johnson’s office will be training pharmacists and clerks to identify the signs of meth addiction, with the hope they will contact police if suspicious people attempt to purchase the cold medications.

Dow of the Attorney General’s office said Maine law protects pharmacists and clerks from civil lawsuits if “someone calls and says ‘I think we have a meth addict on our floor,’ and the police bust the person,” but the charges don’t stick.

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