Maine passes bill that toughens bath salts laws

A selection of bath salts confiscated recently by the Bangor Police Department.
Courtesy of Bangor Police Department
A selection of bath salts confiscated recently by the Bangor Police Department.
Posted Sept. 27, 2011, at 8:14 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 27, 2011, at 10:08 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — After lengthy debate and maneuvering behind the scenes, lawmakers unanimously passed an emergency bill late Tuesday they hope further deters the sale and possession of the designer drug known as bath salts.

The bill, LD 1589, was drafted by Gov. Paul LePage and his staff to curb the growing health and public safety threats posed by the use of Maine’s newest and most worrisome illicit drug.

Republican and Democratic legislators wholeheartedly supported increased restrictions, but the bill stalled a bit Tuesday afternoon as debate shifted to whether the state could pay to enforce those new restrictions.

The debate also featured an amendment, passed by the Senate but rejected by the House, that sought to make unlawful furnishing of bath salts a misdemeanor rather than a felony.

“We opposed providing different penalties for the crimes because it would be inconsistent with our other laws for this class of drug,” said Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, explaining the House’s decision. “While I understand the concerns, we don’t have variation in the law for heroin or cocaine for example, and we shouldn’t set a different, weaker standard for bath salts.”

When the bill went back to the Senate, that amendment was stripped and the discussion moved back to the Appropriations Committee and the bill’s estimated price tag of just over $200,000.

As passed, the bill makes 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.

“Some might say this is too harsh; I don’t believe that,” Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, said. “I’m proud to vote on this bill.”

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, during the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee hearing on the bill, there was talk about costs associated with providing subsidized legal services for indigent clients.

Berry said he was glad to support the bill but he doesn’t believe it closes the discussion on bath salts.

“It’s safe to say bath salts are here to stay for now,” he said, adding that the state needs to address the problem not just on the enforcement front but on the treatment side as well. “Over the next year, we must make sure our courts and public safety have the resources necessary to fight this.”

The bill must be sent to the governor to be signed into law, but the law would go into effect immediately.

“This drug is a growing menace in our communities. Every day, law enforcement officers are forced to confront the unpredictable, often violent behavior of those under the influence of bath salts. These tougher laws send a clear message to those who would use or sell the drug that Maine is prepared to deal with them,” said House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, in a press release Tuesday night.

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