[State Senator Jenny Oropeza represents the 28th Senate District, which includes portions of the Argonaut coverage area south of Santa Monica.]

A recent wave of arrests and police sting operations coast to coast targeting organized crime rings using massage therapy as a front for prostitution have provided plenty of material for late-night comedians.

From one end of California to the other, law enforcement agencies have arrested dozens of massage providers. In Sacramento, not far from the state Capitol, undercover officers arrested three “massage practitioners” at a local massage parlor on charges of prostitution. In Los Angeles County, Arcadia has become so concerned about the problem that they have imposed a moratorium on issuing new massage therapy licenses.

Even in the tony San Francisco Bay-area suburb of Walnut Creek, police estimate that up to 20 percent of the city’s 135 massage parlors are illegal prostitution operations. Despite this, the city has no laws regulating massage businesses.

The situation is compounded by the disturbing reality that law enforcement officials in most large America cities have linked bordellos disguised as massage parlors with the trafficking of women — often from the poorest countries in the world — in what amounts to a modern form of sexual slavery.

This all changes on January 1st, when my measure, Senate Bill (SB) 731, becomes law and California begins to regulate massage therapy statewide for the first time.

Until now, regulation of the practice of professional massage therapy has been left to local counties and cities. In larger metropolitan areas, different massage practitioners could be subject to several different sets of rules and regulations, all within a few miles. Some cities require a license, proof of training and/or a background check. Others have no requirements at all.

In some locales, massage is part of a thriving genuine therapeutic health care system. In other places, however, it is notorious for being part of the sex trade.

Legitimate massage therapists, many of whom undergo hundreds of hours of professional training, at great expense, are offended by being tarred with the brush of illegality and harassment from investigators. The system, if it can be called that, is clearly broken.

My bill creates a new non-profit statewide organization, the Massage Therapy Organization, to certify legitimate massage practitioners and therapists. Our goal is to help both massage therapists and law enforcement by setting clear, consistent statewide rules.

In addition, statewide certification of massage therapy will provide consumers with recourse if they are harmed in the process of receiving a massage. These new rules will also help consumers determine which providers are legitimate and which are not.

In addition, the new law would require that massage therapists or practitioners meet the following requirements:

— be age 18 or older;

— complete either 500 hours of training for therapists or 250 hours for massage practitioners;

— pass a criminal background check, including fingerprinting;

— pay a nominal fee to the Massage Therapy Organization; and

— pass an exam approved by the Massage Therapy Organization.

The new rules formulated by the Massage Therapy Organization will be standard across the state and will supersede local laws.

The organization will be entirely self-funded and there will be no costs to state taxpayers. It is widely supported by law enforcement and professionals throughout the state. (For a full list, visit my Web site, http://dist 28.casen.govoffice.com/.)

Massage has legitimate and vital therapeutic benefits for many people. A recent study in veterans hospitals concluded “massage is an effective and safe therapy for the relief of post-operation pain.” The need for state regulation of this profession has never been greater.

The best-selling author, Aldous Huxley, once said, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”

The facts are that massage therapy in California is currently plagued by scandal and controversy. SB 731 recognizes this reality and seeks a workable solution.

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