Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) signed an executive order Thursday restricting how drug retailers and pharmacies can sell over-the-counter cold and allergy medications, which are sometimes used to make methamphetamines.
The regulations, which will go into effect by Oct. 1, will restrict the amount of cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine that a person can purchase in a 30-day period. In addition, buyers will have to show identification and sign for the drugs, which retailers will now be required to keep behind counters.
Earlier Thursday, House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) and other Republican legislators said they will introduce legislation to make such restrictions a state law.
The action, designed to combat the proliferation of methamphetamine labs in rural and suburban areas, immediately sparked a debate between this year's candidates running for governor.
Republican nominee Jerry W. Kilgore has said he does not support mandatory regulations because they place extra burdens on small retailers. He previously set up a "Meth Watch" program making compliance among such stores voluntary. His opponent, Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, backed Warner's announcement, and the candidate's staff later chided Kilgore for his stance.
"We need to act now in order to stop this scourge in Virginia, but also to prevent the migration of these labs," Warner said at an early afternoon news conference at the state Capitol. He said he was acting now after touring the state's southwestern regions and hearing about how the drug had ravaged Missouri and Iowa.
"It would be irresponsible for the state not to act, as we see how these actions have dramatically cut back on meth labs in other states," Warner said in an interview.
Methamphetamine, a stimulant that can be distributed as pills or a powder, has become a major issue in some areas, including the northern Shenandoah Valley. In the past five years, it has become the most-seized drug along the north-south corridor between Winchester and Harrisonburg. Over the past 18 months, the state has closed about 130 such labs, many of them in the rural southwest but also in other regions of Virginia.
Three dozen states impose some kind of restrictions on the sale of such over-the-counter drugs, Warner said. He added that the number of meth labs found in Oklahoma has declined since the state passed its law last year.
Laurie Peterson, president of the Virginia Retail Merchants Association, said the state's voluntary program has been "very effective." She is concerned that a more restrictive effort might become burdensome for small retailers. "We're hopeful that any new program doesn't put up unnecessary barriers to our consumers," she added.
Kilgore's position on mandatory regulation was immediately seized upon by Kaine's campaign, which said that Kilgore's position was out of step with the bipartisan group of state officials who are seeking the more restrictive rules.
Kilgore's twin brother, Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott), was among the Republican legislators to announce that they would sponsor bills in the 2006 General Assembly session that would set similar regulations on how the cold remedies are sold.
"The dire consequences to the health and safety of Virginians posed by the manufacture and use of meth are too great a risk to meet with anything less than mandatory measures," Kaine said.
Kaine's director of communications, Mo Elleithee, took that one step further, saying that methamphetamine is slowly becoming one of the commonwealth's most dangerous health and public safety issues and that Kilgore's position is irresponsible. "It's either a lack of understanding or he doesn't care," Elleithee said.
Kilgore's campaign staff said such restrictions would be a burden on retailers. Tim Murtaugh, Kilgore's press secretary, said the former attorney general hopes to work with Warner and House Republicans to lessen the impact that such regulations could have on mom-and-pop businesses.
"Our concern continues to be the impact this could have on rural retailers," Murtaugh said. "If you have a blanket policy, it will have a different impact on CVS in Alexandria than it will on a tiny store in a rural county."
Murtaugh pointed out that Kilgore helped introduce legislation that has increased penalties for the manufacture of methamphetamine. In addition, he has proposed legislation making the manufacture of methamphetamine in the presence of a child a crime.
"This is politics in its most embarrassing form," Murtaugh said, adding that Kaine has never initiated successful legislation addressing the drug issue. "Tim Kaine has never once gotten up from his recliner and gotten into the game. He has yet to offer one idea to the public conversation. He has nothing to offer but criticism."