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From Penalizing Drug Addicts to Treating Them: Maine Bill Outlines New Approach

Susan Sharon
Ashley Rideout, who says her felony convictions have complicated her ability to find work on the outside.

AUGUSTA, Maine - While Gov. LePage is calling for more funding to continue the War on Drugs, others say the time has come for an entirely different strategy. In addition to calls for more drug treatment, a bill to reduce penalties for possession of drugs like heroin and Oxycontin is attracting bipartisan support from lawmakers, from the ACLU of Maine and the Maine Council of Churches.Ashley Rideout is an opiate addict whose chances of getting a job, qualifying for federal loans and for certain assistance, including for college, have been greatly diminished - for the rest of her life.

"Last year in August, one of the times that I was arrested, I had heroin residue and hypodermic needles on me," she says, "so I was given felony possession for that because it was heroin."

Rideout is currently a resident of the Kennebec County Jail. Like so many others, she's been in and out of these doors multiple times, for theft, possession and violating the conditions of her release. She's 28 years old, the mother of two kids. And her criminal activity is all connected to her addiction to opiates.

She says her felony convictions have complicated her ability to find work on the outside. "It's very difficult to get a job. It's extremely difficult. I've literally been turned down by McDonald's for having the felonies that I have, and that's hard because I have children. And that's the biggest thing, because I want to work."

"The way Maine's laws are set up now, it's a felony level offense to possess any amount of an opiate or a narcotic," says Oami Amarasingham, of the ACLU of Maine.

The problem, says Amarasingham, is that the state's criminal code doesn't distinguish between someone who is an addict and someone who is a commercial drug trafficker.
"So, if someone is suffering from addiction and has even half an Oxy on them - automatically a Class C, which is up to five years in prison and a felony-level offense."

So the ACLU is backing a bill that would essentially create a simple possession offense, and treat possession of opiates and narcotics the same way other drug possession offenses are treated in Maine, in other states and by the federal government. "So instead of having a Class C crime and conviction on your record, it would go down to a Class D, which is a misdemeanor," Amarasingham says.

Sen. Roger Katz, a Republican from Augusta, is the chief sponsor of the bill, which would still give judges the discretion to incarcerate someone for up to a year. Katz says he's uncomfortable with forever branding someone a felon just for possessing a small amount of drugs, and just because he or she is an opiate addict and first-time offender.

Credit Susan Sharon / MPBN
Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty has operated a drug treatment at the county jail for the past five years.

"If we keep people from being able to get a decent job, if we keep them from getting financial assistance to better themselves at college, if we keep them from being able to apply for other assistance, we're increasing the chance that they're going to be a recidivist and commit another crime," Katz says. "And that's the last thing we want."

Some members of law enforcement appear to be warming to the idea. Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty has operated a drug treatment program at his jail for the past five years.

"I do believe that it's important that individuals that are addicted and are caught with some amount of the substance that they are addicted to should not be demonized," Liberty says, "and those small amounts should probably be misdemeanor level crimes and penalties."

Liberty and other members of the Maine Sheriffs Association say they want clear limits in the bill about what constitutes personal drug use. Still, the association says it will take a neutral position on it. Other law enforcement agencies said they were not prepared to comment.

"And I would say to them: We can get tough but we have to get smart," says Rep. Mark Dion, a Democrat from Portland who's a criminal defense attorney. Dion previously served as the Cumberland County Sheriff, and he's co-sponsoring the bill. "If a jail bed costs $135 a day, that can buy a lot of treatment for many addicts," he says.

Dion says the bill makes sense because it will save money and reduce the strain facing the county jails.