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Politics

Groups Press For Maine Bill That Eases Or Eliminates Some Drug Laws

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Rebecca Conley
/
Maine Public file
The Maine State House in Augusta in December.

A coalition of groups is pushing to significantly overhaul Maine’s drug possession and trafficking laws, saying current criminal penalties are crowding jails and prisons while exacerbating the opioid crisis.

The bill would raise the bar for incarceration, but some, including the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, say it goes too far.

According to the Maine Department of Public Safety, 68 percent of all adults arrested in 2017 for drug-related crimes were charged with possession. By comparison, 31 percent were charged with the sale and manufacturing of drugs.

That same year, 417 Mainers died as a result of a drug overdose.

Supporters of a new bill say those numbers highlight a broken criminal code that fast tracks drug users into a corrections system ill-suited to address their underlying substance abuse disorder and worsening their prospects of recovery.

Oami Amarasingham of the ACLU of Maine told lawmakers on the Legislature’s criminal justice committee Monday that the state’s tough drug laws come at a steep price.

“These severe drug laws funneled thousands of Mainers into permanent second-class citizenship because of the housing, jobs, school, parenting and immigration consequences that accompany criminal arrests and convictions,” she said.

And those consequences — restrictions on parental rights and diminished employment prospects, among others — can deepen a person’s descent into addiction, according to Democratic Rep. Pinny Beebe-Center, of Rockland.

“Last year we lost one Mainer a day to drug overdoses. We lock people up, but our families are still struggling. The number of Maine kids in foster care has skyrocketed and the number of foster parents has fallen,” she said. “The signs are clear. What we are doing is not working.”

Beebe-Center’s proposed solution is a bill that dramatically overhauls Maine’s drug sentencing laws. It increases the amount of heroin, cocaine, crack, methamphetamine and other drugs that could trigger trafficking or furnishing convictions.

Both are felonies that Kenney Miller of the Health Equity Alliance said can lead to incarceration, where chances of relapse increase, despite forced detoxification.

“It’s easy to see that trying to punish people into recovery doesn’t work, that it has never worked and it only adds fuel to the fire,” he said.

The Health Equity Alliance is part of the Maine Coalition for Sensible Drug Policy, which recently released a slate of policy initiatives to tackle the drug crisis. The coalition includes health organizations, faith groups and the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, or MACDL.

“Incarceration is not working. We’re spending money and we’re wasting human life and potential for nothing,” said Tina Nadeau, director of MACDL.

Nadeau said she sees the bill as a way to declare an end to the failed war on drugs.

“We are no more safe than we were 50 years ago when we decided to lock people up for being addicted,” she said.

But Monday’s public hearing highlighted a central tension for law enforcement: Defining the line that distinguishes a person ensnared by drug addiction and those who seek to profit from it.

Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, told lawmakers that legislating that line could have consequences for prosecutors and law enforcement agents attempting to disrupt a drug trade run by shrewd traffickers.

“Traffickers are very adept at what the laws are in the area that they are operating. And they will do everything that they can to mitigate their potential legal liability,” he said.

McKinney’s opposition to the bill is significant because it could signal opposition from Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, who oversees the Department of Public Safety, the umbrella agency for the MDEA.

The Criminal Law Advisory Commission, which reviews Maine’s criminal law and proposes updates, also opposed the bill.

Democratic Attorney General Aaron Frey and the association of district attorneys both took a neutral position during the public hearing and outlined changes they can support.

It’s now up to the criminal justice committee to work through those changes before sending the bill to the full Legislature.

Originally published May 13, 2019 at 11:54 a.m. ET.