Maine Lawmakers Take Up Drug Decriminalization And Treatment Bill In Committee

Maine lawmakers held a public hearing on Wednesday to discuss a bill to decriminalize possession of currently illicit drugs and invest in expanded treatment resources, taking emotional testimony from supporters.

The bill before the legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, LD 1975 from Rep. Lydia Crafts (D), would repeal statutes criminalizing possession of Schedule W, X, Y and Z drugs and paraphernalia under state statute. It would also establish a Substance Use, Health and Safety Fund under the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Beginning no later than June 30, 2024, the legislature would need to annually appropriate funds for the department to make investments to “increase voluntary access to community care for persons who need services related to substance use,” the bill says.

“The removal of possession penalties is an effort to rectify the criminalization of some substances. While we socially sanction others, substance use disorder without incarceration is already hard enough,” Crafts told the panel on Wednesday. “Our public health approach to LD 1975 aims at helping people rebuild their lives through evidence-based medical intervention, increased connection and vital social support. Incarceration, I believe, impedes this goal.”

Under the bill, the health department would need to provide funding to at least one facility per county that would serve as 24/7 “receiving centers” for people to get acute care before being referred to treatment services such as intensive case management, peer counseling, withdrawal care and recovery community centers.

Sen. Pinny Beebe-Center (D) spoke in favor of the legislation, saying it would “help make sure that no matter where you live in Maine, if you have a substance use disorder, you can get the help you need.”

“It would also make an important change in our state’s criminal drug laws, removing penalties for possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use and leaving all laws related to selling furnishing or trafficking in place,” she said. “This public health issue is best addressed with the public health response.”

“We are undergoing an epidemic tied to experiences such as trauma and abuse, poverty—and compounded by lack of access to a wide range of community services, as well as by our ongoing and failed attempts to arrest and penalize our way out of the crisis,” she said. “This bill takes a different approach. It was written within a harm reduction framework to move our drug laws towards something that works towards laws that help end our overdose death crisis, keep families healthy and together and redirect our limited public resources towards more effective use.”

Several people who’ve recovered from substance use disorders, as well as family of those who’ve passed from drug overdoses, testified in favor of the proposal, emphasizing the importance of ending the stigmatization of addiction and the ineffectiveness of criminalization.

One Republican lawmaker, Rep. Lucas Lanigan, also voiced support for the legislation and shared how his own family was impacted by addiction when his son struggled with heroin, overdosing before eventually finding treatment and recovering. He implored his GOP colleagues to consider it a “cautionary tale” to help inform their position on the reform.

“I understand some of you may think this bill is excessive, costly and perhaps even impractical. I used to share those same sentiments before a life-altering event shifted my perspective,” he said. “It’s easy to dismiss such proposals when they seem detached from our own lives. I know because I was once in that same exact position.”

“None of us are immune to the far-reaching consequences of addiction,” Lanigan said. “It is my sincere hope that, by hearing my story, my Republican colleagues can reconsider their stance if for a similar tragedy is closer to home.”

It’s unclear whether the legislation has a pathway to enactment. While Democrats control both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office, an earlier drug decriminalization bill was rejected by the Senate in 2021 after narrowly passing the House.

Gov. Janet Mills (D) voiced opposition to the earlier reform, and she additionally opposed a harm reduction proposal last year that would have allowed individual municipalities to establish overdose prevention sites.

Gordon Smith, director of the governor’s opioid response division, also submitted written testimony for Wednesday’s hearing that applauded the intent but said the legislation is “unrealistic in its goals and is impractical in its approach.”


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Meanwhile, a Maine Senate committee rejected a bill last week that would have fully removed marijuana from the state’s criminal code, including a repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for certain activities involving unlawful amounts of cannabis. It also would have required automatic expungements of prior marijuana convictions.

At the same time, Maine’s legal cannabis market has seen record-breaking sales in recent months, and the governor signed into law a bill last year to provide tax relief for the state marijuana industry.

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