Lawmakers in Augusta are considering Wednesday a bill that would decriminalize the possession of drugs and related paraphernalia, including
LD 1975 — “An Act to Implement a Statewide Public Health Response to Substance Use and Amend the Laws Governing Scheduled Drugs” — was sponsored by Rep. Lydia V. Crafts (D-Newcastle) last year and carried over into this session.
Most notably, this bill would repeal state statutes criminalizing the possession of schedule W, X, Y, and Z drugs as defined by Maine state law, as well as drug paraphernalia.
Schedules W, X, Y, and Z cover all controlled substances in the State of Maine, meaning that LD 1975 would legalize the possession of any and all substances classified as scheduled drugs in the state, including opioids, hallucinogens, and other recreational drugs.
This legislation would also establish the “Substance Use, Health and Safety Fund” that would be used to “provide grants and funding to agencies, organizations and service providers…to increase voluntary access to community care for persons who need services related to substance use.”
Any services provided by a grant recipient must be free of charge to the receiving individual, although reimbursement may be sought as appropriate from insurance providers, including MaineCare.
Similar drug legalization efforts have a spotty track records in other jurisdictions.
Similar to the law currently under consideration in Maine, Ballot Measure 110 also expanded state support for addiction service providers.
Shortly after this, in 2021, lawmakers in Washington state began to move in the same direction as Oregon, giving themselves two years to come up with a long term policy concerning the association of criminal penalties with drug possession.
Unless lawmakers took additional action at some point in the following two years, the state would have automatically — on July 1, 2023 — decriminalized the possession of controlled substances while allowing cities and counties to each take their own approach to handling the possession of illicit drugs and paraphernalia.
In mid-2023 — just before the two-year clock they set for themselves ran out — lawmakers in Washington passed a bill retaining criminal penalties for the possession of controlled substances while increasing state support for treatment service providers.
Months before the measure stopping decriminalization was approved in Washington, a report from Oregon’s Secretary of State Shemia Fagan revealed lackluster results thus far for Ballot Measure 110.
As of January 2023, Oregon had the second highest rate of substance abuse and ranked 50th for access to treatment.
When asked during a press conference what “grade” ought to be assigned to the roll out of the program to date, auditor Ian Green said “maybe a C,” while Audits Director Kip Memmott gave it a D, and Fagan said she’d assign an “incomplete,” according to the Associated Press.
The shortcomings of the program were primarily attributed by state officials to delayed funding roll outs as a result of “ambitious implementation timelines” and under staffing.
Reporting from the Associated Press also showed, however, that on the whole, substance abusers failed to seek treatment after being ticketed for drug possession under the new system.
During the first year of the program, only 1 percent of those who were ticketed sought help via the state’s new hotline.
Maine’s decriminalization and treatment bill comes just months after state lawmakers approved a resolution for the government to study the potential effectiveness of “Harm Reduction Health Centers” — also known as “safe consumption sites” — as a solution to Maine’s opioid overdose death crisis.
Originally, this legislation (LD 1364) would have authorized municipalities to open facilities — referred to as “Harm Reduction Health Centers” — wherein individuals can use previously obtained illicit drugs under medical supervision without fear of arrest.
After this version of the bill was rejected by the Senate in a 16-18 roll call vote, Sen. Rick Bennett (R-Oxford), who supported the bill, motioned for the Senate to consider an amendment replacing LD 1364 with a resolution.
This resolution — which lawmakers ultimately approved — directs the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future to “convene a working group to study methods of preventing opioid overdose deaths by authorizing harm reduction health centers.”
By February 15 of this year, the working group will need to produce a report detailing its findings and recommendations, as well as any proposed legislation.
Currently, Maine allows for municipal-level Syringe Service Programs (SSPs), wherein drug users can turn in their used syringes and receive new ones free of charge. The exchange requirement was temporarily lifted during the COVID-19 pandemic and some municipalities have yet to restore it.
Fifteen such programs operate across twelve cities, including Portland, Augusta, Waterville, Bangor, Ellsworth, Sanford, Calais, Lewiston, Rumford, Caribou, Deer Isle, and Machias.
Across these fifteen programs in 2022, more than 2.3 million syringes were distributed to drug users throughout the state.
From 2021 to 2022, the number of people enrolled in SSPs increased from 5,403 to 6,718, representing the biggest single-year increase in the last ten years.
In recent years, Maine’s overdose deaths have been steadily increasing, prompting many to refer to the situation as a crisis.
In 2022, there were 716 suspected or confirmed drug overdose deaths in Maine, compared to 636 in 2021 and 504 in 2020.
A public hearing for LD 1975 is scheduled for Wednesday, January 17 at 10am before the Health and Human Services Committee in Room 209 of the Cross Building at the State House in Augusta.