AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage signed emergency legislation Wednesday banning a group of synthetic hallucinogens that have been marketed as “bath salts” but are among the most dangerous drugs that Maine Public Safety Commissioner John Morris says he has seen.
“It is now contraband and law enforcement can seize it,” Morris said after the bill was signed. “The DAs [district attorneys] and the [Maine] Chiefs of Police Association was waiting for the governor to sign this and we are immediately notifying them so they can move to get this out of the head shops.”
He said enforcing the law will be difficult, but there will be a major effort by agencies because the drugs are so dangerous. He also criticized the Legislature for watering down the penalties in the bill.
“This needs to be a felony and we will work on that next session,” Morris said.
The original bill did have significant jail time for some offenses, but it was changed to decrease the price tag of the legislation. Under legislative rules, if a measure increases costs to the state, such as requiring jail time for possessing a drug, the estimated cost of the legislation must be funded.
Maine Drug Enforcement Agency Director Roy McKinney agreed penalties need to be bolstered and said they need to reflect the very dangerous nature of the drugs.
“Simple trafficking is only a misdemeanor with a fine,” he said. “But the new law does have aggravated trafficking and aggravate furnishing.”
He said, for example, if someone who possesses the drug is armed or they sell to a juvenile, it is a Class C felony with up to five years in prison.
“We will be focusing on the traffickers,” McKinney said. “That is where we can do the most disruption to the sale of these dangerous drugs.”
Both Morris and McKinney are convinced they can stop the easy acquisition of the drugs, but they are worried about Internet purchases of the drugs that are then resold by local drug dealers.
The new law, which became effective when LePage signed the measure, makes it illegal to possess or sell any of 21 different hallucinogenic drugs or stimulants or any combination of them. Several states already have banned mephedrone, MDPV and other similar synthetic drugs, and others are considering similar legislation. The United Kingdom, Ireland and several European countries also have banned the substances.
When people overdose on “bath salts,” which often are individually packaged in small plastic bags, just as cocaine and other illegal drugs are packaged, it is considered a poisoning by medical authorities. They say the fake bath salts usually contain mephedrone or Methylenedioxypyrovalerone, also known as MDPV. Those are synthetic chemicals that block neurotransmitters in the brain and can stop it from making dopamine, which controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centers.
Local police, doctors and emergency responders have reported signs of paranoia, hallucinations, convulsions and psychotic behavior in drug users.
The legislation was introduced by Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, and was supported by wide margins in both House and Senate votes last month. Berry said the speed with which the drugs have hit the state have stunned both law enforcement and the medical community.
“The epidemic started in the south and has crept northward,” he said, “Maine’s Northern New England Poison Control Center has seen a massive increase in reporting of bath salts poisoning.”
Maine law enforcement agencies and medical facilities started getting their first reports of the drugs in February. In June, the numbers of cases skyrocketed. The poison control center had received no cases in January, but by the middle of June they had more than 29 reports.
Christopher M. Buzzell, 27, of Bangor was the first person in the city to be charged with OUI associated with the man-made stimulants and hallucinogenic drugs that began to surface in Bangor back in February, according to police. He was charged with eluding an officer, two counts of criminal operating under the influence of intoxicants and driving to endanger.
One type of “bath salts” sold in the area is called “monkey dust,” but the drugs are sold under dozens of different names. A bulletin put out by the state Office of Substance Abuse states the “bath salts” label has been used to get around federal food and drug labeling laws.
Jason Andrew Smith, 32, was at a State Street gas station in Bangor on a weekend last month when a police officer saw him waving his arms, rocking back and forth and looking around himself, according to a police report. He said he was afraid and was being followed.
Bangor police Lt. Jeff Millard said last week that the “bath salts” problem in Bangor continues to escalate.
“We’re now seeing four or five incidents a day,” he said.
Morris said the state’s medical community is also under pressure from the use of the drugs. He said often a person that has a psychotic episode from using the drugs needs to be hospitalized.