September 28, 2011

The Maine Legislature passed a bill to strengthen the penalties for users and dealers of the illegal synthetic drug bath salts.

“The bath salts epidemic this summer has prompted the legislature to take emergency action on this critical issue,” said Rep. Seth Berry who is a cosponsor of the new bipartisan bill and was the sponsor of the original bill that made the drug illegal earlier this year.

“We had originally proposed these stiff penalties and now we have stronger support from the governor and the Republican majority. Increasingly, the experts no longer put bath salts near the top of the list. They put it at the top.”

Berry’s bill was scaled back to be a civil violation in the spring due to a lack of funding needed to pay for incarceration, treatment, and indigent legal services.

The abuse of bath salts has ballooned across the state over the summer, according to law enforcement officials. The epidemic prompted the governor and lawmakers to reintroduce Rep. Berry’s original proposal to make the penalties equal to drugs like heroin and methamphetamine. An emergency bill signed Wednesday increases the penalties for people who use, sell or share bath salts from civil penalties with $350 fines to criminal charges.

Possession is considered a Class D crime for the first offense, punishable by as much as 364 days in jail and a $2,000 fine.Depending on the circumstances, trafficking can draw 10 to 40 years in prison, with fines from $20,000 to $50,000.

Nationally, Poison Control Centers recorded 303 poisonings in all of 2010. In the first seven months of 2011, they recorded 4,137. In Maine, Bangor has seen an increase of Bath Salts cases in the past few months. The Bangor Police Chief Ron Gastia told the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on Monday that there were 14 bath salts related incidents this weekend alone.

“Our law enforcement officials need these stronger penalties to help them better protect our communities,” said Anne Haskell, who is the lead Democrat on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. “Rep. Berry was right the first time around. It was a mistake to water down the bill in the spring. We’ve heard from police officials, first responders, and families who urged us to strengthen the law and fight back against this dangerous drug.”

During the debate on the bill House lawmakers rejected an attempt by the Senate to amend the bill to scale back the punishment for furnishing versus trafficking of the drug.

“We opposed providing different penalties for the crimes because it would be inconsistent with our other laws for this class of drug,” explained Haskell. “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.”

The bill will now be sent to the governor to be signed into law.

“We took an important first step tonight to meet the immediate challenges of combating this horrible drug,” said Rep. Emily Cain,the House Democratic Leader. “In addition to strengthening the criminal penalties, we must also plan for the education and treatment challenges we will face in the future.”

The short and long-term effects of substance abuse vary from drug to drug, but you will still be better off avoiding them by not using those substances in the first place.