AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage is working with legislators to craft emergency legislation for consideration next month that would further address the growing bath salts epidemic in Maine.
Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, could not provide details of the bill because it’s not complete, but she confirmed Thursday that the Legislature would have a draft by Sept. 27, the date set for a special legislative session.
“This is a big priority for the governor right now, “ Bennett said, noting that LePage dedicated a recent radio address to the topic.
Whether the Legislature takes up the bill next month is up to House Speaker Robert Nutting and Senate President Kevin Raye. The special session was scheduled specifically to address congressional redistricting, which is mandated by a federal court order, but other bills could be considered at the leadership’s discretion.
Bath salts, a synthetic drug that is marketed under a variety of names including “monkey dust,” started showing up in Maine in February and have been wreaking havoc ever since, especially in the last couple of months.
In the Bangor area, someone is in the news almost every day because of bath salts-related criminal activity, and police in the Queen City have called bath salts an epidemic.
The drug is particularly dangerous, officials say, because it often leads to paranoia, hallucinations, convulsions and psychotic behavior in users.
The 125th Legislature actually passed a law in June that bans the sale of bath salts and makes possession a misdemeanor crime. However, the final bill looked quite different from what originally was drafted and offered little in the way of enforcement mechanisms.
At the time, Maine Public Safety Commissioner John Morris criticized the Legislature for watering down the penalties. He said possession of bath salts needs to be a felony crime with the potential for serious jail time in order to have an effect.
The governor’s new bill will seek to make possession of bath salts a felony, according to Rep. Doug Damon, R-Bangor, who is expected to be the sponsor.
Speaking at an event Wednesday in Bangor, Damon said when the original bill passed in the spring, there was relatively little concern among most legislators. This time around, he said, that won’t be the case.
Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, who sponsored the original bill, LD 1562, disagreed with Damon’s assessment. Berry said he and others were paying close attention several months ago but others seemed to overlook the gravity of the problem.
He criticized the governor for coming late to the table on bath salts but is happy that he is taking the matter seriously.
“Unfortunately, I did not have as much help as I would have liked from the governor’s office, probably because it was a Democratic bill,” Berry said Thursday. “It’s a shame because so much damage has been done.”
Bennett, however, said the governor has been committed to addressing the dangers of bath salts for months.
“This is not the time to play the blame game,” she said. “The governor is hopeful both Democrats and Republicans will do the right thing and consider this legislation during special session in September.”
Berry’s original bill did outline significant jail time for some offenses, but it was changed at the last minute 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. When the bill was sent to the Appropriations Committee, it was determined that the funds were not there and so the bill was amended.
At the time, Rep. David Webster, a Freeport Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said his amendment aimed to discourage use of the drug with hefty fines 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 in June.
Asked how increased efforts to combat bath salts might be paid for this time around, Damon said Wednesday that public safety personnel are simply going to have to stop doing something else.
“We’re going to find funds to make this happen,” he said.
Berry said the state should find a way to fund increased enforcement to deter bath salts, but he also worried about pushing responsibilities to local law enforcement officials who already are stretched thin.
In addition to tightening laws around bath salts, the LePage administration has begun ramping up educational efforts.
“One of my major concerns is this dangerous drug will become available to our schoolchildren,” LePage said in his weekly radio address on Saturday. “I am very concerned that with schools opening soon these drugs have the potential of finding their way into the classrooms.”
The governor directed Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen and Public Safety Commissioner Morris to ask school administrators and nurses to educate themselves to look for warning signs of bath salts use before the 2011 fall semester begins.
“The use of these drugs has increased so rapidly we really don’t know what to expect,” Bowen said in a statement Thursday. “We want to be prepared and make sure that our teachers, nurses, principals, and others are aware of the symptoms so we can help any child who is in danger.”