Lawmakers get sobering look at bath salts’ toll before vote to tighten laws

Posted Sept. 26, 2011, at 5:50 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee heard sobering testimony Monday from several Maine residents who have been directly and negatively affected by the designer drug “bath salts” in the last several months.

Among them was Shane Heathers, 34, of Bowdoin, who made headlines recently after he vandalized his mother’s Brunswick home reportedly while under the influence of bath salts.

Heathers testified Monday before lawmakers that he represents the most hopeless and helpless of all users who turn to bath salts as the “top rung of the so-called drug ladder.”

“I can only speak for myself, but I hope to move beyond my professional addict status,” he said. “I’m just lucky I didn’t hurt someone.”

Heathers awaits resolution of the charges against him, including criminal mischief and violating probation, but he urged lawmakers to take steps to deter the general population from buying and using Maine’s newest and possibly most dangerous drug.

The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee held a public hearing and work session Monday on LD 1589, an emergency bill drafted by Gov. Paul LePage and his staff that seeks to stiffen penalties for possession and sale of bath salts.

The bill 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.

Nearly all who testified Monday spoke in favor of the law.

Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross said if the state really wants to do something, people should think about calling bath salts something else, something less inviting.

“I think we should call it black death,” he said.

After a full afternoon of testimony and discussion, the committee voted to send a slightly amended bill forward to the full Legislature for a vote on Tuesday.

In contrast to congressional redistricting — the other piece of business scheduled for Tuesday’s special legislative session — the bath salts bill is not expected to be accompanied by partisan debate.

However, there could be a robust discussion about how much added cost the emergency bill will create. As of Monday, there was no cost estimate for the bill and there was no mechanism to pay for it.

Last session, a similar bill sponsored by Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, was watered down after lawmakers decided there wasn’t enough money to pay for it.

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. On Monday, there was talk about costs associated with providing subsidized legal services for indigent clients.

That means the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee will have to weigh in on the bill as well.

Dan Billings, chief legal counsel to Gov. LePage, said he believed that any financial considerations of the governor’s bill could be worked through and he urged lawmakers not to get too caught up in cost. He said murder might not be outlawed today if it had a fiscal note attached.

Others, however, worried about passing on the cost to public safety and public health agencies that already are overtaxed.

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