AUGUSTA — Lawmakers usually face emergency bills to make some new hallucinogenic drug illegal under state law.

Under a proposal before the legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, such drugs could be outlawed through rule-making by state government staff.

“This request resulted from an investigation of a synthetic hallucinogenic drug incident in our local middle school last month,” said Rep. Roberta Beavers, D-South Berwick, sponsor of the measure. She said local police asked her to bring forward the issue because the specific drug involved was not illegal under Maine law and was dangerous.

Eliot Police Chief Ted Short said he sent the email to Beavers that led to the legislation. He said law enforcement needs the tools to swiftly act on new chemical formulations of drugs that are often being peddled to school children — in this case at a middle school.

“It is pretty clear that we are behind the eight-ball on these chemical compounds,” he said.

Short told lawmakers the state could use rule-making to act more swiftly than the federal government is responding to new designer drugs that show up in Maine.

“I am not sure the federal government always has the answers,” Short said.

Several other law enforcement officers also testified, urging some process be set up to allow new chemical compounds be more swiftly added to the list of banned substances.

“Everyone right now is playing catch-up,” said Lt. Chris Martin of the Brewer Police Department. “These markets are changing so rapidly, literally, we could ban five more substances today and next month we could have another substance.”

The bill as drafted would have the Commissioner of the Department of Public Safety establish rules to outlaw new substances, but the public safety department suggested that the Attorney General’s office would be more appropriate.

Martin said the state is facing a crisis in drug use, both from illegal drugs and legal drugs diverted for illegal purposes.

Sgt. Lowell Woodman Jr. of the Kennebec County Sheriff’s department is assigned to the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. He said several states are looking at how to swiftly respond to the ever changing composition of hallucinogenic drugs and suggested Maine consider the emergency rule making allowed in Florida and other states.

“As part of the review, the attorney general considers whether the substance is an imminent danger to public safety, whether it has potential for abuse, its history and current pattern of abuse,” he said. The review also looks at the scope of abuse and if there is any risk to public health.

District Attorney Geoff Rushlau, who oversees Waldo, Knox, Sagadahoc and Lincoln counties, said Knox County is an “epicenter” for the designer drugs problem and urged passage of the legislation. He said the problem with the drug commonly known as bath salts has not lessened despite emergency legislation to outlaw it passed in September.

“Bath salts is one of the trade names for these drugs,” he said.   

The only testimony in opposition to the proposal came from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. Alysia Melnick told the panel that creating more crimes with higher penalties is not solving the problem. She said treatment of those addicted to the drugs should be the policy.

“We think that criminalizing drug use and addiction is not the best way to address it,” she said. “We also have a lot of concerns about due process and disproportionate impacts of over-incarceration.”

But during a brief work session on the measure before it was postponed until later in the week, some committee members expressed opposition.

“I feel as though we ought to keep that authority here,” said Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland. “We are not of session for years at a time; some legislatures go in only every two years; we are in every year.”

She said lawmakers have been responding to the continued changes in composition of drugs every session and are well ahead of many states in banning the synthetic hallucinogens. She said lawmakers should be setting policy, not unelected officials.

One option discussed would allow the Attorney General to establish emergency rules that would then need legislative approval to stay in effect. No committee votes have been taken on the proposal or any of its suggested amendments.

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