'Bath salts' hysteria grips lawmakers

This is your Legislature on drugs
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  October 5, 2011


Like hopeless, strung-out junkies, one legislator after another babbled contradictions. Some couldn't help themselves from making the case against criminalizing possession of the new stimulant known as "bath salts." In the end, though, as they always do, they got totally whacked mainlining obedience to law enforcement.

So, as a result of the Legislature's unanimous vote — tacked onto September 27's one-day special session on congressional reapportionment — a first-timer now can face a year in jail and, for a second possession offense, five years in prison. Only a few months ago bath salts were a legal head-shop staple. It's still legal in about 20 states.

Leading the attack in this new front of the 40-year-old Great Patriotic War on Drugs were Republican Governor Paul LePage, Democratic representative Seth Berry, and, of course, cops and prosecutors. The bill, LD 1589, toughened a law passed in June that made first-time possession only a civil offense, with a $350 fine.

Outlawed are eight compounds with names like "3, 4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV)." Snorted, smoked, injected, the powder reportedly bestows a euphoric high like cocaine or methamphetamine. But its bad trips are said to be very nasty — for some, to the point of full-blown psychosis after prolonged use.

A political bad trip was provided by the inconsistencies echoing under the State House dome:

THE EPIDEMIC The word "epidemic" was often heard in the debate, which featured many scary stories. For example, Senator Debra Plowman, the Republican assistant majority leader from Hampden, claimed 50 to 60 women in the Penobscot County Jail were involved with bath salts. (On October 2, the jail held only 22 women in total. Sheriff Glenn Ross said four had been involved with bath salts.)

And in the whole state, Penobscot is the only county where charges have been filed involving the drug since it became illegal: 21 charges, 16 of them civil violations for possession.

Bangor Police Chief Ron Gastia said there's no field test, and hospitals test for just one compound. So how much confirmed use is there in Bangor? "I don't have an answer," he replied in an interview. Federal health officials say bath salts often are taken with other drugs, and users tend to have mental illness. Authorities have difficulty discerning what behavior is a product of bath salts. But some druggies tell Gastia's officers they're using it, he said.

Stories of bath salts users running around naked, vandalizing property, or calling police because they fantasized people were out to kill them, however, have been a refrain in daily newspapers across the state.

"There's a tendency for a media frenzy," Representative Berry, from Bowdoin, admitted at the bill's Criminal Justice Committee hearing, as he added fuel to the frenzy.

WORST OF THE WORST "Our society will not exist" if the drug's use is allowed to continue, declared the bill's lead sponsor, Republican representative Douglas Damon, of Bangor, at the hearing.

"These substances are possibly the worst drug Maine or the US has ever seen," testified Berry, referring to its effects, which he said included "agitation, uncontrolled movements, insomnia, bizarre and vivid hallucinations, severe paranoia, acts of violence to self and/or others, muscle loss, and elevated risk of stroke, heart attack, and organ failure."

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