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Maine Lawmakers Send Drug Decriminalization Task Force Study Bill To Governor



The legislation initially would have enacted drug decriminalization, but it was scaled back amid opposition from Gov. Janet Mills.

By Evan Popp, Maine Morning Star

The Maine Legislature this week approved a measure to study the issue of drug decriminalization—a far cry from the original version of the bill, which would have decriminalized personal possession of illicit drugs and used the savings to improve treatment options in the state.

LD 1975 passed by unanimous consent in both chambers of the Legislature.

As amended, the bill establishes a task force to study changes to the legal status of scheduled drugs—including actions taken by other states around drug decriminalization, scholarly research, the impact of decriminalization on public health and safety and its effect on access to treatment. A report would be due by November 6, and the bill authorizes the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee and the Health and Human Services Committee to recommend legislation based on the study.

The bill, however, is significantly pared down from its original version, which sought to decriminalize possession of illegal drugs and establish at least one center in each county to provide urgent 24/7 services for those having a substance use or mental health crisis. Proponents of the original measure argued that instead of criminalizing drugs—which results in people being imprisoned and makes it harder for them to access treatment—the state should view addiction as a public health issue.

Supporters of decriminalization also noted that 607 people died from drug overdoses last year in Maine, which the recovery community has argued shows that the state’s current approach to addressing substance use isn’t working.

However, Gov. Janet Mills’s (D) administration opposed the original version of LD 1975. As a result, advocates and the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Lydia Crafts (D-Newcastle), revised the legislation in March, proposing to raise the threshold for felony drug possession charges and reducing the number of service centers the measure would have established.

But neither of those versions were taken up by the Health and Human Services Committee last month. Instead, committee chair Rep. Michele Meyer (D-Eliot) introduced the amendment that replaced the bill with a study. The amended version was approved by the committee unanimously, with some supporters of the original legislation shedding tears as the panel voted.

In an interview with Maine Morning Star last month, Courtney Gary-Allen, organizing director of the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project, criticized the committee’s actions. She argued that studying decriminalization is an ineffective use of time and a distraction from actions that could save people’s lives in the near-term, such as overdose prevention centers—sites where people can administer previously obtained drugs under medical supervision as a way to prevent overdoses.

During the hearing on the bill in March, however, Rep. Anne Graham (D-North Yarmouth) said the study represents a small, but important, step forward and argued that lawmakers are “committed to making a difference” on the issue of substance use in Maine.

This story was first published by Maine Morning Star.

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