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Bill Would Decriminalize Minor Drug Possession In Maine

The possession of small amounts of drugs in Maine would become a civil offense, rather than criminal, under a proposal before the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. Dozens testified on Friday in support of the bill, but it faces opposition from law enforcement, and the Mills administration.

The legislation imposes civil penalties for minor drug possession, and offers defendants the option of paying a fine or undergoing a health assessment, which could lead to a treatment program. Some supporters of the change, who say they’ve spent time in jail for minor possession, told lawmakers that it does not deter drug use.

“I see people every day that lose their house, their money, their kids, their phone, everything, and that doesn’t stop them from using. One thing I have never heard anyone say is, 'Man I stopped using because I was afraid to go to jail.' You know, it’s not a deterrent,” says Dr. Nick Gallagher, a drug treatment specialist.

But the proposal drew opposition from prosecutors and law enforcement officials. Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, says that while the administration supports reducing the barriers to treatment, decriminalizing possession of all illegal drugs is not the way to meet that goal. He also criticized the bill for not clearly defining what constitutes a small amount of drugs, and for not imposing stronger penalties for repeat offenders.

“The bill does not specify what quantity, what constitutes personal use amounts. In addition, the bill proposes no stronger intervention responses if there are subsequent violation,” he says.