LINCOLN, Maine — Nearly a dozen northern Maine Rite Aid pharmacies and several independent drug stores are halting nonprescription sales of certain nasal decongestants that contain pseudoephedrine in an effort to stop the illegal production of the street drug methamphetamine, according to pharmacy officials and the health advocacy group that requested the action.
“In the coming days, we are proactively removing non-tamper-resistant, single-ingredient pseudoephedrine products from select Rite Aid stores in northern Maine,” spokeswoman Kristin Kellum of the Camp Hill, Pennsylvania-based retailer, said Tuesday.
Tamper-resistant formulations of pseudoephedrine, such as Nexafed, are designed to block pseudoephedrine from being made into meth and will remain on the shelves.
“As a member of the community and a leading drugstore chain in the state, Rite Aid remains committed to taking appropriate action to help address the methamphetamine problem in northern Maine, while ensuring that we continue to serve patients with legitimate medical needs,” Kellum said.
The products are being pulled from 11 Rite Aid stores in northern Maine, Rite Aid spokeswoman Ashley Flowers said Thursday, declining to provide the locations or the product brand names. Rite Aid has around 4,700 locations nationwide and more than 60 stores in Maine.
“No Bangor stores are included,” she said in an email.
While there will be no behind-the-counter pseudoephedrine at the 11 northern Maine locations, if someone has a prescription, the Rite Aid pharmacists will be able to fill it, Flowers said.
“In Maine, a prescription is not needed to purchase a product containing pseudoephedrine; however, if a physician were to write such a prescription, we would fill it as we do today,” she said.
Aroostook County District Attorney Todd Collins said the change should make a difference because “methamphetamine simply cannot be manufactured without pseudoephedrine.”
Collins visited every pharmacy in Aroostook County last week to call attention to the issue of meth making in small clandestine “labs” and their connection to products like Sudafed that contain pseudoephedrine.
Some other allergy medications, including Allegra-D and Claritin-D, are being pulled as part of the change, a pharmacist from northern Maine who asked not to be identified said.
“We feel that this is a huge step forward in our effort to decrease substance abuse misuse [of the products],” River Coalition executive director and Partnership for a Healthy Northern Penobscot member Linda McGee said Tuesday.
The Save A Life Substance Abuse Task Force, facilitated by the Partnership for Healthy Northern Penobscot, was created in December 2014 and is a group of nearly 50 Lincoln community leaders, residents, physicians, pharmacists, people in recovery, educators and business owners who are meeting to address the region’s drug addiction problem, McGee said.
The group asked Rite Aid, Hannaford and Wal-Mart to stop carrying Sudafed, and Rite Aid was the first to respond. Hannaford has said they are unable to comply at this time, and the group is still waiting to hear from Wal-Mart, McGee said.
“There are a lot of people coming from southern Aroostook County to get Sudafed,” McGee said. “They arrive in carloads. They would get everything they could get and then head back.”
Several independent St. John Valley pharmacies also have reported high rates of southern Aroostook County residents visiting their stores and attempting to purchase Sudafed, and have decided to remove the nasal decongestant.
St. John Valley Pharmacy in Fort Kent, Madawaska Pharmacy, Mars Hill Pharmacy Inc. and Presque Isle Pharmacy are no longer carrying Sudafed.
Dwayne Carr, pharmacist at Presque Isle Pharmacy, said that store stopped selling Sudafed last week at the request of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency and Aroostook County DA Collins. Carr said people were attempting to purchase the drug “on a daily basis” at Presque Isle Pharmacy.
Maine was one of the first states in the nation to make customers ask for pseudoephedrine, which was moved behind the counter in 2005, produce an identification to purchase it and to restrict how much people could buy to 9 grams per month. In 2013, state legislators strengthened the law by adding an electronic tracking system that prevented people from buying from several locations to get more than their monthly allowance.
The nasal decongestant is used to make “shake and bake” or “one pot” meth using plastic soda bottles that have been found all over the state, with about half discovered in Aroostook County.
“Many people don’t realize that the manufacturing process uses such caustic materials that the resulting concoctions are actually hazardous waste materials and need to be isolated by specialized teams and then destroyed by [Department of Environmental Protection] protocols,” Collins said. “It is an enormously expensive undertaking in addition to the risk of poisoning and explosion and fire that the meth manufacturing process presents.”
The “shake and bake” meth is made by mixing certain common household chemicals together with Sudafed or other drugs containing pseudoephedrine, which is “cooked” by adding lithium taken from batteries, according to Peter Arno, commander of Maine Drug Enforcement Agency division II, which covers the northern half of the state.
He said meth, an illegal stimulant that has plagued western parts of the U.S. since the 1980s, started to creep into Maine about seven years ago.
There was one meth lab bust in Maine during 2009, and the number has since increased every year, with two found in 2011, eight in 2012, 11 in 2013, 37 in 2014 and a record 56 manufacturing and disposal sites found last year.
With 40 meth labs found so far this year in Aroostook County, the area accounts for nearly half of the 85 meth labs found in the state by MDEA agents, according to the tally of clandestine labs kept by the Maine Department of Public Safety.
When methamphetamine hits the streets and rural roads of Maine, it’s called meth, crystal, crystal meth, chalk or ice, and looks like a clear, white or off-white crystal powder. The stimulant, which can be extremely addictive, can be snorted, smoked, dissolved into a beverage or injected.
“Methamphetamine use and production is a significant problem in our community and it needs a community solution,” Collins said. “The simplest, quickest and most effective community response would be to take pseudoephedrine off of the shelves from Houlton to Madawaska.”
BDN writer Anthony Brino and Jessica Potila of the St. John Valley Times/Fiddlehead Focus contributed to this story.