The laudable efforts by Gov. Paul LePage and the Legislature to stem the tide of bath salts abuse have revealed some mixed messages in our drug laws.
Specifically, under the law now in effect, possession of the synthetic amphetamines sold as bath salts, monkey dust, vanilla sky and K2 is treated by the courts as a civil violation. That puts possession of the drug on the same level as possessing a usable amount of marijuana or driving over the speed limit.
The governor and Legislature want to raise the severity of the offense and stiffen the penalties for possession.
Earlier this year, bath salts use was blamed for much of the mayhem seen in the Bangor area — a man running into the Penobscot River because of delusional fears, the same man later trying to grab a police officer’s gun, others committing robberies and vandalism and one dying in an overdose. The Legislature responded with legislation in June, taking effect in July, that made it illegal to sell or possess the substance.
Under that law, someone selling — trafficking, in police lingo — bath salts faced only a misdemeanor charge as opposed to the felony charge one would face if caught selling a significant amount of heroin. The Legislature stopped short of making trafficking a felony offense because such a law would result in prison time for offenders and the state would incur that cost.
When the Legislature addresses the drug in a session next month, this “fiscal note” — an estimate of the cost of imprisoning offenders — likely will be accepted as necessary.
Americans struggle to assign degrees of risk to illicit drugs; we tend to demonize them all. Yet our drug laws do just that. A whole range of charges follow depending on whether the drug is on Schedule W, X, Y or Z. The amount of the drug possessed and whether it implies the intent to sell also dictate different penalties.
Some drug laws have been accused of ethnic and class bias. Laws treated powder cocaine, favored by middle class whites, very differently from crack cocaine, prevalent in inner city minority neighborhoods, with crack possession bringing much stiff penalties.
Yet another element of the drug discussion is to what degree fines and incarceration work as deterrents. In some parts of Maine, an approach has defendants plead guilty to possession then attend a treatment program. If the offender is still drug-free after a year, the guilty charge is withdrawn and charges reduced.
A three-pronged approach is needed. First, people must be educated about the relative risks of drugs. Clearly, warnings about bath salts and Oxycodone should be more urgent than those about marijuana. The second prong must be treatment. Drug addiction is a health problem; the criminal consequences follow. And lastly, there must be legal penalties for selling or possessing. Such interdiction will never rid the world of drugs, but it slows the flow and raises the price.
Gov. LePage and legislators must focus on all three components to effectively combat the bath salts epidemic.