AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) -- Gov. Paul LePage is now pushing a proposal to toughen penalties on people who possess or sell the drug known as bath salts just two months after enacting a law that bans them.
A draft of LePage's bill, made available to The Associated Press on Wednesday, upgrades offenses from misdemeanors to felonies, resulting in longer jail terms. Possession, with a previous conviction, would become a felony. Trafficking and aggravated trafficking would also become felonies.
LePage in July signed into law a bill banning the sale of bath salts and making possession a misdemeanor. In the meantime, police have seen a surge bath salts cases across the state, raising concerns about the violent reaction it often causes in users. Their behavior makes them a threat to themselves and others, police say, and LePage says the current law is too weak.
"This is one of the worst explosions of a substance I've seen," said state Public Safety Commissioner John Morris, a former police chief in Waterville and Richmond. "This has produced some of the most bizarre behavior. ... My real fear is if this doesn't pass, we will lose some young people."
Bath salts are unregulated psychoactive substances that provide highs similar to those from amphetamines, Ecstasy and cocaine. The drug is being imported from other countries, largely through the Internet. It's sold under a variety of names, such as Monkey Dust and Vanilla Sky.
The name "bath salts" comes from packaging that has been used to disguise it as something more benign, but the drug has no relationship to a product used in baths.
Earlier this month, Fairfield police intercepted a 200-packet shipment of bath salts sent to a local business where officers seized 165 packets of the drug last week. The paranoia stemming from their use caused one man, in July, to grab an assault-style rifle and run into the street in Bangor. It is believed to have prompted a woman to climb naked into a drainage pipe in Waterville, also in July.
From January to July, the Northern New England Poison Center received 87 calls from Maine, 17 from New Hampshire and four from Vermont reporting instances of people in need of help after taking the bath salts. By September, the numbers were up to 121, 25 and nine respectively.
The director of the poison center, Karen Simone, cautioned that the numbers don't always tell the whole story. The numbers appear to be large after the drug first appears and when most cases are reported, but they drop off as hospitals and other treatment facilities become familiar with the drug and don't report treatments.
Simone believes a tougher law will have an impact in Maine. She said some of the other states where tougher laws have been passed to control bath salts -- notably Florida and Louisiana -- have seen use of the drug decrease "to almost nothing." But she warned that a tougher law is not a permanent answer because traffickers and users gradually find a way around it.
"I do want this legislation to pass because I think we really need it," Simone said Thursday. "We're still getting steady calls about bath salts."
The National Conference of State Legislatures says 30 states have banned substituted cathinones, the chemical name of bath salts. While some of the laws have been very effective controlling the drug, others have not, said Alison Lawrence of NCSL's Criminal Justice Program. The success depends on whether the legislation is written in a way to prevent loopholes, she said.
Lawmakers in Maine balked at making bath salts possession and trafficking felonies because of the added cost of putting more people in prisons.
Morris, whose department heads the state police, said he has urged lawmakers this time not to become "myopic" about the cost of tougher enforcement. Morris said he believes the cost of treating users, paying police more and covering other costs of abuse will far outweigh the costs on jailing offenders under the new law.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)