AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers are proposing changes to a bill outlawing the synthetic drugs known as “bath salts” in an effort to reduce the costs to the state yet still help Maine police and prosecutors fight a rapidly growing problem.
Largely unknown in Maine at the beginning of the year, “bath salts” have been thrust into the spotlight recently as emergency room doctors and police face an upsurge in overdoses and criminal activity stemming from the hallucinogenic drugs.
For example, Maine hospitals have reported 29 overdoses this month so far compared with zero six months ago. And Bangor police, who have seen a significant uptick in problems related to a drug that can give people dangerous hallucinations, had their first operating while under the influence case due to bath salts this week.
In an effort to catch up with the drug’s makers and peddlers, lawmakers have been considering a bill that would ban the possession or sale of a list of synthetic materials used to make the substance. Although marketed as “bath salts” and legally sold at some stores, the drugs often are compared to cocaine or crystal meth.
But the bill could cost the state money as more people are processed through the court system and end up in jail.
On Thursday, members of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee voted to make simple possession of illegal bath salts a civil offense punishable by a $350 fine but no jail time. Under the version of the bill endorsed by both the House and Senate, possession would have been a Class C crime punishable by up to five years in jail and a $5,000 fine.
A third possession conviction could earn a violator up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, however.
The proposed changes also would reduce the seriousness of trafficking or furnishing bath salts. For instance, a first offense for furnishing — a lesser crime than trafficking — would garner a fine of up to $500, although subsequent offenses potentially would earn the violator jail time and larger fines.
Likewise, a first offense for trafficking could trigger a $1,000 civil fine but no jail time. Subsequent violations would merit criminal charges and jail time, however.
Rep. David Webster, D-Freeport, said the changes aim to discourage use of the drug with a hefty fine while giving prosecutors and judges more flexibility to steer offenders toward treatment rather than jail. Locking up users or even those convicted of furnishing the drug to others costs the state money and can send those people further down the wrong path, he said.
“Our goal here is to give the courts, police and district attorneys the tools they need to turn this problem around rather than create a new crime,” Webster said.
Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said he believed the changes would help remove the drugs from the streets while helping steer users or addicts toward help.
The rewritten bill will face additional votes in both the House and Senate.
Evert Fowle, district attorney for Somerset County, said anything is better than nothing at this point because the drugs are not illegal. But while he is comfortable with making possession a civil offense, Fowle said he would like to see the fine increased to $1,000 and he would prefer that the more serious offenders face criminal charges.
“They are trying to do the best they can in a very difficult fiscal environment, and I appreciate that,” Fowle said in an interview. “I am hoping I can persuade them to make furnishing and trafficking a crime, though.”
Fowle said the drugs are rapidly becoming a serious problem in Maine.
“I think the whole point is to outlaw it so people will stop selling it,” Fowle said.
The Legislature likely will consider the Appropriations Committee’s recommended changes during a meeting on June 28.