AUGUSTA, Maine — Leaders of the legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee say they need to take action to update state laws that ban synthetic marijuana as chemists have changed the chemicals used to make the drug, called “spice” on the street.
“Criminals are smart, but we have to be smarter,” said Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Livermore Falls, co-chairman of the panel. “We will see if there is some way to bring this up and address it.”
He said an existing bill could be amended to address the issue, or if needed the panel can seek permission to report out a committee bill.
“We are the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee and this is certainly a public safety issue,” he said. “We heard a lot of testimony when we had the bath salts bill about the way these drugs are changed and we have to be quick to change the law.”
Maine is one of 40 states that ban the drugs that are sprayed over herbs to mimic the active ingredient in marijuana. The compounds are called synthetic cannabinoids and first surfaced four years ago, when states moved to ban substances that contain any of ten such chemical compounds.
“We will have to address this,” said Rep. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, the committee co-chairman. “It’s a recurring issue and we will be playing catch up with the bad guys for the foreseeable future.”
He said when the panel heard the original ban legislation they heard testimony that there are hundreds of possible drug combinations that can be used to create a form of synthetic marijuana. He said it is unfortunate that policymakers are always playing catch up with illegal drug makers.
In several states in recent months prosecutions have been blocked because the synthetic pot was made with different chemical compounds than specifically listed in the law. That is drawing the concern of the National Institute on Drug Abuse which says spice is often sold in packets designed to appeal to teens and young adults.
The federal Drug Enforcement Administration has reported the new formulation of the drugs can have some serious effects, including seizures, hallucinations, vomiting and an accelerated heart rate.
“There is no question we will have to deal with this,” said Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, the democrat senator on the panel. “The bigger subject is something that we talked about during the special session that we are going to see wave after wave after wave of these new chemicals, these new drugs coming into our state.”
He said the legislature should consider some sort of state board or agency that could act to ban new designer drugs during the time the legislature is out of session. He said some other states use that mechanism to quickly respond to new chemical formulations.
“We are never going to get ahead of crime, I think we have had it since Cain and Abel,” Gerzofsky said. “But we have to be able to keep up with it.”
But Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, the lead democrat on the panel, said while she agrees lawmakers need to address the latest drug formulations, she is wary of Gerzofsky’s suggestion.
“I am not sure I would want to relegate that to a board,” she said. “I really think there is a role here for the federal government to step up.”
Haskell said with all of the states facing the problem of changing drug formulations, she hopes federal regulators move more swiftly to ban new formulations. She acknowledged that sometimes the states do act more swiftly and thoroughly than the feds. She said when the state passed its bath salts ban, it included eight drug formulations compared with five banned under federal law.
“That is one where we were out in front,” she said.
The lawmakers said they want to consult with prosecutors and the Department of Public Safety on crafting legislation, as they did on the bath salts bill.
“We need to hear from everyone involved,” Mason said.
Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Morris said he is reviewing what is happening in other states and what Maine should consider for legislation.