State lawmakers in Maine passed a bill last week to decriminalize possession of all drugs. The measure, LD 967, was passed by the Maine House of Representatives on Thursday with a vote of 77 to 62 and was later cleared by the state Senate, according to media reports.
Under the measure, criminal penalties would be dropped for simple possession of scheduled drugs including heroin, cocaine and prescription medications. Instead, those guilty of such offenses would be subject to a fine of $100 or be required to submit to an assessment for treatment of substance use disorder.
Maine’s voters legalized cannabis for adults 21 and older in 2016, and legal recreational sales of marijuana began in the state last year. Possession of other regulated drugs is subject to a range of criminal charges and penalties from misdemeanors for most prescription drugs and felonies for possession of heroin and cocaine.
The bill was introduced by Democratic state Rep. Anne Perry earlier this year. Lawmakers will continue working on the bill to reconcile differences in the legislation, including criminal charges for subsequent possession offenses contained in the Senate’s version of the bill.
“We do need to treat this disorder and law enforcement will be a part of it, but law enforcement is not the gateway to recovery,” Perry said on the House floor last week. “It’s a gateway to isolation and suicide.”
Maine Follows Oregon’s Lead
LD 967 was modeled after an initiative passed by Oregon voters last year, which decriminalized all drugs for personal use. The approach is favored by advocates for criminal justice reform and harm reduction, who champion treating illegal drug use as a public health matter rather than a criminal offense.
“For over 20 years, in my work as a nurse practitioner and living in a community that has been devastated by drug overdoses, I have seen firsthand how treating drugs like a crime has created suffering that spans the generations,” Perry said at a press conference on the bill earlier this year. “I’ve seen so many people lost to the criminal justice system instead of getting the health care that they need so desperately.”
“We cannot continue to wage a ‘War on Drugs’ that has not worked,” she added.
State Rep. Charlotte Warren, also a Democrat, said that several doctors who specialize in substance use disorder appeared at a legislative hearing earlier this year, testifying that the condition is treatable and preventable but incarceration is not an effective remedy. Instead, they called for treatment over punishment.
“Eleven Mainers a week are dying to overdose,” Warren told reporters. “Substance use disorder is a disease. And a symptom of the disease is possessing the substance. That’s why the House voted to no longer criminalize possession. We need to treat the disease in order to save lives. What we are doing is not working. We want to save lives.”
Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey, law enforcement groups, and Republican lawmakers all oppose LD 967, leaving final passage of the bill uncertain. Opponents of the bill cite its lack of possession limits and criminal charges for repeat offenders for their refusal to support the proposal.
“These people need help and law enforcement is the best social worker to help these people,” said Rep. Gary Drinkwater.
Drug Trafficking Reform Also Passed in Maine
Also last week, lawmakers in Maine passed LD 1675, a bill to reform the state’s harsh drug trafficking statute and eliminate the disparity in punishment for possession of crack and powder cocaine. The bill was passed in the House on Tuesday and survived a 20 to 15 vote in the Senate the following day. The measure now heads to Mills’ office for her consideration.
“This bill would restore integrity, honesty, and clarity to our drug laws,” state Sen. Craig Hickman said after the vote, noting that someone who possesses two or more grams of heroin or fentanyl can be charged with drug trafficking without evidence of intent to sell. “This bill will curb a government that has gotten too comfortable playing fast and loose with the English language, a government that redefines ordinary words to curb the freedom of ordinary people.”