A joint Maine House and Senate committee on Tuesday advanced a bill to broadly decriminalize possession of illicit drugs and another measure to reform the state’s drug trafficking laws—but the panel’s members were split on how the legislature should handle the decriminalization proposal going forward.
The first piece of legislation, LD 967, would make illicit drug possession a civil violation punishable by a fine of up to $100. People would be able to avoid that penalty if they submit to an “evidence-based assessment for proposed treatment for substance use disorder.”
The Joint Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, which first heard testimony on the proposal late last month, was split on the legislation. There was talk of a potential compromise during an earlier work session on Monday, but that didn’t happen—and an initial vote to pass the bill failed 5-6.
The committee ending up issuing three separate reports with differing recommendations on how the legislation should be handled on the House floor, where it heads next.
Two Democratic senators who were among the initial No votes submitted a report recommending that the legislature should pass the measure—but it should be revised. They want to make it so a second possession offense would mandate the assessment in addition to the fine. Third and subsequent offenses should be criminal misdemeanors, they argued.
The Republican members of the panel issued a report saying the bill should not be passed.
“We are losing 11 people a week” from overdose, Rep. Charlotte Warren (D) said at the hearing in arguing in favor of decriminalization. “I feel personally that it’s time for us to make a change, and try to start saving lives. What we are doing is not saving lives.”
One of the most surprising supporters of the legislation is the Maine Medical Association—a group that’s part of the American Medical Association, which has historically opposed other reforms like legalizing marijuana.
Another notable group that offered testimony in favor of the bill is the Maine Council of Churches, which represents faith institutions from seven denominations.
Separately, the panel approved a bill that was originally intended to make it so people couldn’t face severe felony convictions for drug trafficking based solely on the amount of drugs they possess. An amendment offered by the state attorney general’s office was adopted, however, and now the measure does allow for the amount to be taken into account—but people would have the right to make their case in court that the drugs were for personal use.
Tuesday’s decriminalization vote represents a continuation of a national conversation about the need to reform laws criminalizing people over drugs and treat substance use disorder as a public health issue, rather than a criminal justice matter.
Last year, Oregon voters elected to end criminalization of low-level drug possession at the ballot.
Vermont lawmakers also introduced a bill in March that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs in the state.
Also that month, a Rhode Island Senate committee held a hearing on decriminalization legislation to replace criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs with a $100 fine.
Back in Maine, a bill was recently introduced that would legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes.
Photograph via Pixabay