AUGUSTA, Maine — State lawmakers are expected to consider emergency legislation later this month that would increase penalties for trafficking of bath salts and add new penalties for possession of the synthetic designer drug that has gripped Maine.
The proposed bill, drafted by Gov. Paul LePage and his staff, likely will be debated and voted on during a special legislative session scheduled for Sept. 27.
It seeks to make the following changes to state law:
- Possession of bath salts would increase from a civil violation to a Class D misdemeanor crime, punishable by up to a year in jail.
- Unlawful trafficking of the drug would go from a Class E misdemeanor to a Class B felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
- Aggravated trafficking would increase from a Class C to a Class A felony, with a maximum penalty of 25 years.
- Unlawful furnishing and aggravated furnishing would increase from Class E and D misdemeanors, respectively, to Class C and B felonies.
LePage’s bill comes only a few months after the Legislature passed a law banning the sale of bath salts — an action most now realize simply was not strong enough.
This month’s special session was scheduled specifically to address congressional redistricting, something that was mandated by a federal court order, but other bills can be considered at the discretion of House and Senate leadership.
Jim Cyr, a spokesman for House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, said the speaker and Senate President Kevin Raye of Perry have discussed the emergency bill and likely will allow it to be introduced on Sept. 27.
Cyr also said Nutting expects a unanimous report from the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee about the bill before that date.
Awareness about bath salts has begun to consume public safety agencies, medical professionals and, with school back in session, educators. The synthetic drug is marketed under a variety of names including “monkey dust,” and is particularly dangerous because it often leads to paranoia, hallucinations, convulsions and psychotic behavior in users.
A poison control expert said Thursday that LePage’s efforts would help curb abuse but they would not solve the problem.
“I do want this legislation to pass because I think we really need it,” said Karen Simone, director of the Northern New England Poison Center. “I think it will help. I think it’s necessary.”
Simone said other states where tougher laws have been passed to control bath salts, Florida and Louisiana, have seen use of the drug decrease dramatically. But she warned that a tougher law is not a permanent answer because traffickers and users gradually find a way around it.
The drug is being imported, largely through the Internet, from other countries, Simone said.
She sees no signs that the drug’s use is diminishing in Maine but the problem is widespread. So far, at least 30 states have banned bath salts.
The latest bill could reignite a debate from most recent legislative session about how to pay for increased vigilance of bath salts use and sales.
Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, sponsored the original bill, LD 1562, which outlined 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 farther down the wrong path, he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.