October 1, 2011

MAINE COMPASS: Legislature declares war on 'bath salts'

Rep. Dennis Keschl

The scourge of so-called "bath salts" in Maine hopefully will subside now that the Legislature has dramatically increased the criminal penalties for people who use, sell or share the drug.

On Tuesday, the House voted 137-0 and the Senate voted 35-0 for LD 1589, "An Act to Criminalize Possession, Trafficking and Furnishing of So-called Bath Salts Containing Synthetic Hallucinogenic Drugs."

The gloves are off. Trafficking in these dangerous street drugs now can bring prison terms of up to 30 years and fines as high as $50,000. Possession moves from a civil violation to a Class D crime, meaning a conviction for a first-time offender is punishable by up to 364 days in jail and a $2,000 fine.

These are stiff penalties, and they will be expensive to enforce (an estimated $200,000 over the next two years), but the Legislature's approach is quite appropriate. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Doug Damon, a Bangor Republican, said the drug already is taking a heavy toll on people in Maine and around the country. "It is destroying lives," he said.

The legislation, which lists eight varieties of bath salts, already has been signed into law. Maine is not the first state to criminalize bath salts, and it won't be the last.

The use of these synthetic hallucinogens has spread like wildfire since first appearing in the United States last year. China and India are believed to be the countries of origin. Before hitting our shores, the drugs swept Britain, which banned them in April 2010.

No one should be confused by the innocent-sounding name "bath salts" or by their "brand" names, such as Vanilla Sky, Ivory Wave, Cloud 9, Blue Silk and others. The highly addictive white powder, based on the chemical MDPV or methylenedioxypyrovalerone, which users snort, smoke or inject, can unleash violent and bizarre behavior, hallucinations, paranoia, psychosis and intense panic attacks.

Health officials say that bath salts can cause kidney failure, seizures, muscle damage and loss of bowel control.

A Louisiana Poison Center official, quoted in the publication HealthDay, described bath salts this way: "If you take the very worst of some of the other drugs -- LSD and Ecstasy with their hallucinogenic-delusional properties, PCP with extreme agitation, superhuman strength and combativeness, as well as the stimulant properties of cocaine and meth -- you take all that together and this is what you get."

If you are wondering why anyone would take this stuff, you're not alone.

But according to a Wednesday article by Susan Cover in the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, Bangor had seen 81 cases in September, up from 33 in June.

In Waterville, in July, a 24-year-old woman stripped naked and crawled into a drainage pipe. According to news accounts, rescuers had to rappel down a cliff to pull her out. After the rescue, she was unable to communicate with Waterville police.

Reports from around the country paint a very disturbing picture of this drug, which sells for $25 to $50 for a 50-milligram packet.

In Panama City, Fla., several officers were needed to subdue a man on bath salts who tore a radar unit out of a police car with his teeth. In the same city, a woman attacked her mother with a machete, thinking she was a monster, and a man was brought into an emergency room with a temperature of 107.5 degrees.

The psychosis is extreme. A Louisiana man attempted to remove his own liver with a mechanical pencil. In Indiana, a man climbed a flagpole and then jumped into traffic. In Mississippi, a man on bath salts killed a sheriff's deputy.

And in West Virginia, a woman scratched herself into pieces over several days because she thought there was something under her skin. "She looked like she had been dragged through a briar patch for several miles," said the attending physician.

Police and doctors are hard-pressed to deal with people in the throes of a bath salt high. An Illinois police chief told The New York Times that some people on the drug could not be subdued with pepper spray or even Tasers. Doctors have had to administer general anesthesia because some people on the drug do not respond to even large doses of sedatives. Some are admitted to psychiatric wards.

Here in Maine, the laws are now tough. However, it will take more than tough laws to blunt this fast-growing societal menace. We must develop a comprehensive solution involving prevention, education, enforcement and effective treatment to fully respond to this dangerous drug and others that are sure to follow.

Rep. Dennis Keschl, R-Belgrade, serves on the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.

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