AUGUSTA, Maine — The legislation has not been formally introduced, but the battle over Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal increasing the penalties for possessing and trafficking in bath salts got under way Tuesday as the Appropriations Committee considered the process they use to estimate the costs of legislation.
“I can tell you I am honestly afraid about what is happening with bath salts in this state,” Public Safety Commissioner John Morris told the panel. “As I listen to this conversation, my fear is that I hope we don’t become myopic and just look at the cost of incarceration. The cost of not incarcerating people who are trafficking in bath salts is going to cost this state millions of dollars.”
Morris said he is convinced the cost of locking up bath salts users and traffickers will be less than the cost to local governments, hospitals and the impact on Maine families if those users and traffickers remain free in society.
Bath salts are synthetic drugs that are marketed under a variety of names including “monkey dust” and started showing up in Maine earlier this year. The drugs have caused serious problems for law enforcement and hospital emergency rooms. Bath salts often lead to paranoia, hallucinations, convulsions and psychotic behavior in users.
The Legislature passed an emergency measure in June that made possession illegal, but only provided for fines as punishment. It also made trafficking a crime, but not as serious a crime as cocaine and heroin trafficking.
The issue before the Appropriations Committee was how to figure what process to use to determine how much it would cost to impose higher penalties. Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, a leader on the Criminal Justice Committee, said she had taken the estimates of how many people would be jailed and the estimates for the additional costs to the courts and for indigent defense and said it could be more than a million dollars a year in additional costs to the state.
“That’s just a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but I think it is in the ballpark,” she said.
Rep. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, co-chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee, said it is unfortunate the price discussion is being mixed up in the discussion of bath salts legislation. He supports tougher penalties.
“I certainly will support the effort to stiffen the penalties,” he said. “The committee had originally supported tougher penalties but backed off over concerns about the costs and whether that would prevent the bill from going forward.”
But Haskell said she could only support tougher penalties for trafficking in bath salts, not simple possession of the drugs. She said the penalty for trafficking in cocaine and heroin, 10 years in prison, would be appropriate for bath salts trafficking.
“People should not be made felons for first-time possession for something that they may not know is as dangerous as it is,” Haskell said.
The penalty for first possession of a small amount of bath salts has been hotly debated after some lawmakers were given copies of the draft legislation weeks ago. Both Democrat and Republican lawmakers are concerned about the implication of a first-time user being convicted of a felony.
“The commissioner himself just said the problem is with traffickers and that is where we should focus,” Haskell said after the Appropriations Committee meeting.
Plummer agreed and said he does not see the first-time user as the problem. He expects his committee will focus on the traffickers and possibly decide that possessing more than a small amount of the drugs would create a presumption of trafficking, which would be a separate offense and carry criminal penalties.
Both lawmakers say they believe the money should and can be found to jail those convicted of trafficking in the dangerous drugs.