Work to reform Maine’s drug laws will continue next year

Hoping to fine-tune legislation that would make compassion and public health a focal point for discussing the opioid crisis, the state legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted at a work session on Wednesday to table a bill that would reform Maine’s trafficking and possession laws.

“We did see some folks come in [to the public hearing] with some movement, “said committee co-chair Rep. Charlotte Warren (D-Hallowell) at the work session. “I think there is some common ground, and I think it would be helpful for us to get a sense of where that common ground is.”

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Pinny Beebe-Center (D-Rockland), sought to eliminate what advocates say are often arbitrary possession amounts that have created a blurred line between whether a person is prosecuted for possession or as a drug “trafficker” or “furnisher” — which typically carries harsher penalties. Under her proposal, prosecutors would also be asked to focus on the intent of the accused, rather than assume that they are trafficking based on the weight of the drugs they are carrying.

Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey acknowledged during the public hearing on the bill that the current limit for felony possession set in law was a compromise between lawmakers rather than an amount determined by health professionals as likely for someone using drugs to possess.

While the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency and some Republican lawmakers pushed back against any proposed changes to the limit, most committee members, including Rep. Richard Pickett (R-Dixfield), agreed at the work session that the bill inspired a “good conversation” about what needs to be done to effectively address the crisis that claimed hundreds of lives in Maine last year.

“Most folks that came in agreed that what we’re doing isn’t working, and we need to look at ways to fix it,” Warren said. “We are spending millions of dollars prosecuting and incarcerating folks who are struggling with substance-use disorder. None of us are saying let’s not go after the traffickers. But what we’re doing right now isn’t [going after the traffickers].”

(Top photo: Rep. Warren chairing the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee | Cara DeRose)

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