Bill That Would Reduce Maine Drug Penalties Wins Praise, Criticism

May 1, 2015

AUGUSTA, Maine - Possession of some controlled drugs, even in the form of just a couple of pills, is currently a felony under Maine law, with a potential sentence of several years in jail. Legislation that would reduce some drug penalties has drawn wide support, but also some stiff opposition, in Augusta.

It appears that some of the proposed changes might have enough backing to pass muster with the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

Sen. Roger Katz, a Republican from Augusta, has proposed sweeping legislation that would reduce a wide number of current felonies to misdemeanors, which carry a maximum sentence of a year in jail.  The measure has gathered support from some fellow Republicans, including Sen. Eric Brakey of Auburn. "Arresting and housing people in jails for addictions costs hundreds of millions of dollars for little return on investment," Brakey said.
 
And Rep. Mick Devin, a Democrat from Newcastle, also supports the bill. A retired naval officer, Devin testified at the bill's committee hearing that current laws are causing serious problems for veterans who are fighting drug addiction.

"Veterans are prescribed opiates at high rates to manage real pain. And like for so many others, this leads to dependency and addiction," Devin said. "Once caught up in addiction, many vets turn to street drugs, which quickly turn to a felony in Maine."

Former chief justice of the Maine Supreme Court, Dan Wathen, now a member of the board of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine says he has watched the "war on drugs" fail over the years, and has watched penalties be increased based on the mistaken belief that longer jail sentences would deter drug use. "All of that is premised upon this notion that if somehow if you threaten people with serious enough punishment that it will change their behavior," Wathen said. "It hasn’t worked."

Wathen says that, as a judge, he handed down some long jail sentences when they were warranted. But he says addicts just aren't deterred by the threat of a lengthy  sentence.  On the other side of the issue is the Maine Attorney General's Office, where officials say Katz's bill goes too far.
 
"LD 113 would allow for some of the most dangerous people selling some of the most dangerous substances to receive substantially reduced sentences that would serve as little deterrent to their desire to turn a profit on the backs of addicted Mainers," said Lisa Marchese, the head of the AG's criminal division.
 
The LePage administration also opposes the measure, as does District Attorney Geoff Rushlau of Waldo, Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties. Rushlau says the measure goes too far in reducing penalties for furnishing an illegal drug.

"Somebody who furnishes heroin, gives somebody heroin, would be committing a misdemeanor offense," he says. "I hope nobody thinks that is a good approach for our law to take."

But some prosecutors believe current law could be improved. John Pelletier is the chairman of the Criminal Law Advisory Commission, which is made up of prosecutors as well as defense attorneys.  He says while much of the proposal goes too far, the group thinks some changes are warranted.

"We are suggesting that we remove from the list of scheduled W drugs, where mere possession is a felony, hydromorphone, hydrocodone and oxycodone in a quantity less than 30 milligrams."

That compromise appears to have traction with some on the committee. The panel will now consider the legislation later this month before sending its recommendation to the full Legislature.