A Maine House committee on Friday discussed a bill to decriminalize possession of all currently illicit drugs—and the Maine Medical Association (MMA) and a church coalition were among the organizations that testified in favor of the proposal.
The legislation, LD 967, would make illicit drug possession a civil violation punishable by a $100 fine. People would be able to avoid that penalty if they submit to an “evidence-based assessment for proposed treatment for substance use disorder.”
Numerous people testified before the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, with many sharing personal stories about the harms of criminalizing personal drug possession. Members heard about the long-term consequences people with drug convictions on their records face, such as lack of housing opportunities and employment.
But among the most notable supporters of the legislation is the MMA, which is part of the American Medical Association (AMA). While AMA has historically opposed other reforms like legalizing marijuana, on this issue the Maine chapter’s position is aligned with pro-reform advocacy groups.
“Opioid addiction is both an epidemic and a public health crisis, every bit as much an illness as cancer, diabetes or alcoholism,” MMA said in written testimony. “But instead of receiving treatment and support for their illness, patients affected by substance use disorders often find themselves treated as criminals instead of patients.”
“Treatment and prevention are the pathways to defeating this problem, not stigmatizing its victims with felony convictions which will follow them for the rest of their lives, affecting their ability to find jobs, health insurance, housing, family support, and often leading to relapse into the very addiction that produced the conviction in the first place,” it continued. “By making possession of illegal drugs for personal use a civil infraction rather than a crime, LD 967 is an important step in the effort to take medical control of the opioid epidemic.”
Daniel Oppenheim, co-chair of the public health committee of MMA, also appeared before the panel on Friday and stressed that “opioid addiction is both an epidemic and a public health crisis,” and “all too often opioid addiction begins with prescriptions written by doctors.”
Another notable group that offered testimony in favor of the bill is the Maine Council of Churches, which represents faith institutions from seven denominations.
“Maine’s current policies around drug use and substance use disorder have a severe death measure. Our choice not to treat the opioid epidemic as a public health crisis allowed 500 Mainers to die of overdose last year alone,” the council’s testimony said. “Our policy of criminalization keeps thousands more locked in a vicious cycle that spins attempts to self-medicate trauma into felony convictions, which create barriers to the resources necessary to recover, leading to deeper trauma.”
“At a deeper level, we know that when we, at a policy level, choose empathy over judgment, compassion over punishment, and treatment over prosecution, we are actively choosing life over death,” it said.
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The Maine Center for Economic Policy is also in favor of ending criminalization for drug possession.
The organization said that the existing policy “places a huge burden on Mainers, especially Mainers of Color, and prevents them from thriving economically.”
“What’s more, from an economist’s perspective, criminalizing people who use drugs is an inefficient use of state resources,” it said. “The state spends tens of thousands of dollars each year to incarcerate an individual; resources which would be much more effective applied to other methods.”
“These impacts are especially severe for Mainers of Color. Systemic bias in our criminal code and in our justice system means that Black and brown Mainers are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be convicted, and face longer sentences than white Mainers when it comes to substance use,” it continued.
ACLU of Maine said the state’s “attempt to arrest our way out of drug use has not worked: drugs are still readily available throughout the state, substance use disorder rates remain high, and the death toll is unprecedented.”
“More than 500 people died last year from drug overdoses in our state,” it said. “These were our friends, our family, and our neighbors. We owe it to those we love who use drugs to try a new way in order to save lives.”
The Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said that drug possession convictions “can have short term and life long consequences,” and those with convictions “are likely to suffer negatively at work, in their relationships, and in their housing.”
“Drug possession convictions have a disproportionate impact on the poor and people of color; making drug possession a civil offense will help to alleviate these disparities,” the association said. “The get tough on crime, war on drugs approach has been a failure by any metric. It has cost untold amounts of dollars and lives.”
Addiction recovery groups also submitted testimony in favor of the legislation, with a representative of the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project sharing a personal anecdote about how his past drug use could have led to life-lasting consequences without necessary treatment.
The Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services, meanwhile, said substance misuse disorder “is a health condition and not a crime.”
“We need to change our drug laws to save lives. Opioid addiction is a public health crisis. Decriminalization is an essential step to remove barriers to care and support, reduce stigma and discrimination, improve health and socioeconomic outcomes, and work toward a more just and compassionate society. We must stop treating people affected by substance use disorders as criminals instead of patients. We need a humane and public health-informed response to ensure people stay alive and have the best opportunity to live and thrive in their community.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the main opponents to the reform was the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency.
The anti-narcotics agency said that while it is “open to reasonable modifications of the unlawful possession of scheduled drugs statute, we do not support the outright decriminalization of scheduled drugs.”
“The bill’s title implies that personal use amounts would be subject to a civil violation. However, the bill does not specify what quantities would constitute personal use amounts. In addition, the bill proposes no stronger intervention responses if there are subsequent violations,” it said. “As stated above, the Department is resolved to working for reasonable reforms to Maine’s illegal possession statute based on evolving views of how to address the problem of illegal substance use. Decriminalization of these drugs sends a mixed message that fails to recognize how dangerous these drugs are and normalizes their possession.”
The hearing is a continuation of a national conversation about the need to reform laws criminalizing people over drugs and treat substance misuse 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 last month that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs in the state.
Also last 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.