AUGUSTA — House lawmakers on Tuesday upheld Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a bill that sought to encourage people to seek help for drug overdose victims without fear of being arrested themselves.

The bill had passed both chambers of the Legislature unanimously last month but, after LePage’s objections, enough House Republicans opposed the measure to sustain the governor’s veto. The 91-55 vote was short of the two-thirds majority needed to override LePage’s opposition.

Before the vote, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Barbara Cardone, D-Bangor, took issue with LePage’s assertions in his veto letter that the legislation would grant “immunity” to prosecution for users of illegal drugs. While the first version of the bill would have provided more sweeping protections, the version passed by the Legislature would have provided individuals with an “affirmative defense” against prosecution for drug possession if the charge resulted from a call they made to get help for someone who was overdosing.

“It is an attempt to encourage those who may otherwise be afraid to call in an emergency situation and to save a life,” Cardone said during a brief House floor debate. “It is not an attempt to grant immunity to drug users for their drug use.”

During public hearings on this bill and similar measures, supporters argued that the threat of arrest can prompt some individuals to flee an overdose scene rather than help a victim. Several people testified about friends or loved ones who died from overdoses after they were abandoned by fellow drug users.

In his veto message, however, LePage discounted such arguments and argued that “a good way to get drug users off drugs is for them to get into the criminal justice system.” He wrote that the bill, L.D. 1079, “would be a deterrent for law enforcement officers to arrest someone who called in an overdose” and that the person “would then not be able to benefit from the help that can be found once arrested.

“This bill and those like it that propose immunity for drug users make me wonder, ‘What’s next?’ ” LePage wrote. “Would these people actually let their friends die in order to avoid a misdemeanor offense that probably would go unprosecuted anyway? I believe the answer to this question would be ‘no.’ “

House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, predicted that many defense attorneys would look to the “affirmative defense” option to fight drug-related charges against clients.

“You will be seeing people go free who otherwise would have been convicted of very serious crimes,” Fredette said during a floor speech. “I believe this is a slippery slope.”

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