The Maine Senate on Wednesday defeated a bill that would have decriminalized possession of all currently illicit drugs.
The setback for reform advocates comes two weeks after the legislation was narrowly approved in the House of Representatives. Despite attempts to compromise, the Senate rejected LD 967 in a 14-18 vote.
As passed by the House, the legislation would have made possession of controlled substances for personal use punishable by a $100 fine, without the threat of incarceration. That fine could also have been waived if a person completed a substance misuse assessment within 45 days of being cited.
On Wednesday, the Senate first adopted an amendment from Sen. Mark Lawrence (D) that would have limited the civil violation to a first and second offense, making the second case punishable by a maximum $200 fine and referral to a substance misuse assessment. A third and subsequent offenses would have remained criminal violations. But that modest compromise did not garner enough support for passage.
“This amendment decriminalizes addiction,” Sen. Craig Hickman (D) said on the floor. “And the people of Maine–and law enforcement officers on the ground in Maine—need us to pass this bill.”
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Even if the legislation had passed, it was expected to be vetoed by Gov. Janet Mills (D), whose administration opposes the reform, as does the state attorney general.
“The Senate had an opportunity to provide people with desperately needed relief, and it failed,” Courtney Allen, policy director at the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project, told the Portland Press Herald. “We need to change our drug laws if we want to save lives. L.D. 967 would have saved the state money and reinvested resources from the criminal system into access to recovery services. People need treatment and support to enter sustained recovery, not arrest and a criminal record.”
This defeat come weeks after a joint House and Senate committee advanced the decriminalization bill with several conflicting recommendations, as well as another measure to reform the state’s drug trafficking laws.
Supporters of the legislation included the American Academy of Pediatrics’s Maine Chapter, Maine Medical Association, Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services in Maine and Maine Council of Churches.
But while advocates are disappointed that state lawmakers failed to enact the bill, this is just one of numerous reform proposals that have moved at the local, state and even federal level.
For the first time ever, a congressional bill to federally decriminalize possession of controlled substances—and incentivize states to do the same—was formally introduced last month.
Last year, Oregon voters elected to end criminalization of low-level drug possession at the ballot.
Vermont lawmakers also introduced a bill in March that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs in the state.
Also that 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.
In Massachusetts, a bill was introduced in the state legislature in February to decriminalize drug possession. And local activists have successfully advanced separate decriminalization measures in Northampton, Somerville and Cambridge.
Back in Maine, a bill was recently introduced that would legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes.
Photo courtesy of Markus Spiske.