Harm reduction advocates celebrate advance of bill that would decriminalize some drugs

Harm reduction advocates celebrate advance of bill that would decriminalize some drugs

June 21, 2021 Dan Neumann

Long-fought efforts to reform the state’s punitive drug laws had success in the Maine Legislature this session, with two notable reforms advancing and a third that would make possession of certain drugs a civil violation still awaiting approval in the Maine Senate.

The Maine House on Thursday voted 77-62 to pass LD 967, sponsored by Rep. Anne Perry (D-Calais), which would allow those in possession of scheduled drugs to pay a $100 fine or be referred for an evidence-based assessment of treatment options for substance use disorder instead of facing incarceration.

Reps. Robert Alley (D-Beals), Joe Perry (D-Bangor) and Bruce White (D-Waterville) joined Republicans in opposing the bill. The Senate has tabled a vote on the bill until later this month.

The successful House vote Thursday evening was seen as a major victory by advocates who have led a years-long campaign against the failed policies of Maine’s War on Drugs. LD 967 is one of a number of policies that advocates and lawmakers have backed in an effort to move Maine away from punishing the disease of substance use disorder and toward providing people with options for recovery. Another bill that would reform the state’s drug trafficking laws cleared both chambers of the Maine Legislature on Wednesday and will go on to Gov. Janet Mills. 

Advocates argue that after a year in which over 500 Mainers died from drug overdoses, it’s clear that criminalizing people who use drugs is not working and that a new approach centered around treatment is needed. 

The decriminalization measure spurred a vigorous debate in the House on Thursday afternoon, with Republicans arguing that law enforcement is the best approach to treat substance use disorder. However, proponents of the bill pointed out that a policing-focused strategy has been tried again and again and has had a staggering cost in the form of overdose deaths.

“Substance use disorder is a disease,” said state Rep. Charlotte Warren (D-Hallowell). “And we’ve tried criminalizing this disease for decades and 11 Mainers a week are dying.”

Warren described how during a hearing on LD 967 in late April, the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee heard from a number of doctors who are experts in substance use disorder. As Beacon previously reported, those medical professionals told the committee that the disease is treatable and preventable but that incarceration is not an effective remedy, urging lawmakers to prioritize treatment rather than punishment.

State Rep. Grayson Lookner (D-Portland) also spoke during the House debate, reading a quote from a well-known activist in Maine who died of an overdose in September.

“To quote the late, great Jesse Harvey, an advocate of the recovery community, ‘People who use drugs don’t deserve to die. We don’t need to be shaming people into hiding, we need to be welcoming people into recovery with understanding and support,’” Lookner said.

Reforming Maine’s drug trafficking laws

Another priority for criminal justice reform advocates is LD 1675, sponsored by House Assistant Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland), that would rein in Maine’s felony drug trafficking law, which is among the harshest in the country, and eliminate the disparity in Maine law between crack cocaine and powder cocaine, which are essentially the same drug chemically.

The trafficking bill cleared the House Tuesday and passed the Senate 20-15 on Wednesday. 

“This bill would restore integrity, honesty, and clarity to our drug laws,” state Sen. Craig Hickman (D-Kennebec) said after the vote, explaining that prosecutors are allowed to pursue a drug trafficking charge if someone possesses two or more grams of heroin or fentanyl regardless of whether prosecutors can prove an intent to sell. “This bill will curb a government that has gotten too comfortable playing fast and loose with the English language, a government that redefines ordinary words to curb the freedom of ordinary people.”

Progressive lawmakers and groups promoting harm reduction like the Health Equity Alliance, the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project, the Church of Safe Injection and the Maine ACLU say they are very encouraged by other measures that have cleared the Maine Legislature and are now on the governor’s desk, including LD 994, which would remove criminal penalties for possession and exchange of hypodermic needles, and LD 1688, which would shutter Maine’s last youth prison, Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, and divert its $18 million annual budget to community-based programs and services.

“Eleven Mainers a week are dying to overdose,” Warren told Beacon. “Substance use disorder is a disease. And a symptom of the disease is possessing the substance. That’s why the House voted to no longer criminalize possession. We need to treat the disease in order to save lives. What we are doing is not working. We want to save lives.”

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