AUGUSTA — The Legislature passed an emergency bill Tuesday to increase the penalties for people who use, sell or share the synthetic hallucinogenic drugs known as “bath salts.”

The law increases violations from civil penalties with $350 fines to criminal charges that include prison time and hefty fines.

After initial passage in the House with no debate, the bill hit a snag in the Senate when Democrats questioned the accuracy of the legislation’s projected cost and the severity of the penalties for trafficking and furnishing.

But after the delay and an attempt to amend the bill to change the penalties, L.D. 1589 passed as recommended by the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. The House vote was 137-0 and the Senate vote was 35-0.

“It’s safe to say bath salts are here to stay, at least for now,” said Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, who sponsored legislation that was passed earlier this year to outlaw the dangerous drugs.

The new law, which will take effect with Gov. Paul LePage’s signature, repeals Berry’s bill, which made it a civil violation to possess bath salts.

The new law sets up criminal penalties for possession, trafficking and furnishing. For example, 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 ranging from $20,000 to $50,000.

During a public hearing on the bill Monday, Mike Heathers, whose son has struggled with bath salts, told lawmakers about the effects of the drug.

“I have never seen a drug that was nearly as destructive or potentially dangerous as bath salts,” he said.

He said that although people sometimes confuse bath salts with something “you would put in a tub it is in fact a very dangerous manufactured drug that can be inhaled, smoked or injected, and was made expressly to consume as such.”

Bangor Police Chief Ron Gastia said in an interview Tuesday that the new law will likely drive up the cost of the drug, and so reduce its use. It now costs $25 to $30 for a small bag of bath salts, he said.

“This is the worst drug I have ever seen, barring none,” said Gastia, who has been a police officer for nearly 30 years and spent 10 years in drug enforcement.

Bangor police have reported seeing cases rise from 33 in June to an estimated 81 already this month.

The new law is projected to cost just over $200,000 in this fiscal year and next. Those costs come from the number of people expected to be incarcerated and those who use legal services provided by the state.

The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee voted Tuesday evening to allocate the funds from unappropriated surplus, which totals $6.3 million.

Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono, said she was concerned that the Legislature – which was back for a one-day special session – was acting too fast on the legislation.

“All of a sudden there is a pool of money that sprinkles from the heavens to fund this,” she said.

Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, implored senators to support the bill.

“It is a freight train that is about to go passing through our young people,” he said. “We’re getting in front of an epidemic.”

 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: [email protected]