A bill aimed at decriminalizing drugs and related paraphernalia, as well as expanding support for and access to addiction treatment services, was at the center of a public hearing held Wednesday by the Maine Legislature’s Committee on Health and Human Services.
More than four hours worth of testimony concerning the legislation was offered by lawmakers and members of the public, while even more testimony was submitted to the Committee after the fact.
Support for and opposition to the legislation largely came down to a fundamental disagreement over the most effective way to reduce the prevalence of drug addiction in Maine and how best to support recovery and treatment for those willing to pursue it.
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.
Many of the comments offered Wednesday in favor of the bill framed the legislation as taking a “public health approach” to treating “substance use disorders” associated with illicit drug use.
“This bill aims to create a state-wide public health-based response to substance use in Maine,” Rep. Crafts said in her testimony introducing the bill. “Our public health approach to LD 1975 aims at helping people rebuild their lives through medical intervention, increased connection and social support. Incarceration impedes this goal.”
“Instead of responding to drug use with punishment, which does not work,” testified Meagan Sway of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Maine, “LD 1975 would begin to transition our drug policy away from incarceration and punishment and toward a public-health informed framework—a model that is centered on seeing the whole person and one that offers care, compassion, and grace.”
Those in opposition to the bill agreed that access to treatment and recovery is essential to solving the problem — and that there ought to be a system in place that provides support for those willing to get help — but argued that “enabling” the abuse of controlled substances by decriminalizing their possession is not the way to accomplish that goal.
“There are impactful strategies that we all can support to create a comprehensive and effective drug control policy,” Rep. Reagan Paul (R-Winterport) testified. “This requires investments in education and prevention, access to treatment, support of recovery services, and enforcement.”
“We must build a system that has help in place for those willing to accept it and work towards recovery, but we shouldn’t enable people to continue dangerous behaviors that are harmful to them and all of society,” Rep. Paul concluded.
“Enforcement alone cannot get it done. Removal of consequences and solely focusing on a public health care response will not get it done,” testified Brewer Chief of Police Christopher Martin. “It requires deliberate and pragmatic approaches.”
Gordon Smith — the Mills Administration’s Director of Opioid Response — also testified in opposition to the bill, noting several practical issues with the treatment and recovery aspect of LD 1975 as it is currently written, as well as taking specific issue with the broad decriminalization of scheduled drug possession.
“While I will leave to the Department of Public Safety, the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, The Maine Prosecutor’s Association and the Attorney General’s office the significant implications of this proposed change,” Smith testified, “the removal of these provisions from Maine law at a time when the street drugs are the most lethal they have ever been, is not a proposal the Administration can support at this time.”
The majority of lawmakers and residents who testified in support of LD 1975 had personal experience with drug addiction — either their own or that of their loved ones — and shared with the Committee the insights they had gleaned from this experience.
“Criminalization perpetuates stigma, which, in turn, sustains the addiction,” testified Rep. Nina Azella Milliken (D-Blue Hill), who has personally struggled with a controlled substance addiction. “Drugs being illegal made my addiction worse, not better.”
“Love, not handcuffs or fines, is what our friends in suffering deserve,” Rep. Milliken said.
“We can either continue to bury our heads in the sand or invest in the future of so many tormented with addiction and mental health problems,” testified Rep. Lucas John Lanigan (R-Sanford), whose son struggled with a heroin addiction. “We can invest now, or we will pay later. It really is simple.”
Underlying much of the testimony offered in support of LD 1975 on Wednesday was the argument that substance abuse is a medical condition and ought to be treated as such, not as a moral or criminal failing on the part of the addicted individual.
“As a society, we treat people who use illicit drugs differently than we treat people with other substance use disorders,” Rep. Anne Perry (D-Calais) testified before the Committee. “It is time for us to treat drug addiction the way we treat other addictions, and not like a moral failing that needs incarceration to fix. Maine needs a public health response for treating all substance use disorders.”
“[LD 1975] focuses on enhancing addiction services accessibility across all counties and eliminating barriers to treatment associated with the criminalization of drug use,” said Rep. Perry. “For over 50 years, this country has waged a failing war on drugs. While it promised us safer and healthier communities, it has instead delivered increased incarceration rates, trauma, and preventable deaths.”
“Jails and prisons are not appropriate places to heal from trauma,” Perry said. “If anything, criminal justice involvement can cause more trauma.”
Those in opposition to the bill, however, emphasized the important role that the illegality of scheduled drug possession plays in allowing those struggling with drug abuse to be redirected toward the resources they need to begin recovering.
“We believe sections of this bill truly move the conversation forward on the issues of funding and treatment,” testified Richard R. Desjardins of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). “However, in our opinion the section of this bill that decriminalizes possession of all drugs, including the most potent and dangerous is taking the wrong direction in reducing deaths and drugs in our state.”
“In my previous experience as a municipal police officer, interacting with individuals charged with simple possession provided the opportunity to work with families, court diversion programs, community based treatment and other resources,” Desjardins said. “These programs frequently had a huge impact in changing behavior.”
Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey testified in opposition to the decriminalization of scheduled drug possession, suggesting that the removal of criminal penalties would “normalize” the use of controlled substances.
“I am concerned that blanket legalization of drug possession — some of which are highly addictive and at least one of which is extremely deadline — would normalize the activity, which has significant implications for public safety and public health,” Attorney General Frey said.
The Health and Human Services Committee has not yet reported out on LD 1975, and as of the publication of this article, a work session for the bill has not been scheduled.