Despite broad support from Democrats and Republicans, Gov. LePage is likely to veto it.

AUGUSTA — A bill proposed by a Republican state senator would reduce the penalties for certain drug offenses – specifically possession of drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine – in an effort to keep lower-level offenders from serving long prison sentences, but it faces likely opposition from the governor.

Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta said the bill, L.D. 113, is a smarter approach to handling crime, because the savings would not only improve prison operations but could then be steered toward funding treatment for the growing number of Mainers addicted to drugs.

“People who repeatedly traffic in the sale of illegal drugs to our children and our neighbors ought to be locked up,” Katz said Friday while introducing his bill to the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. “This bill is not for them.”

The bill would make possession of Schedule W drugs a Class D misdemeanor instead of a Class C felony. That drug category includes heroin and methamphetamine, both of which have been particularly problematic in Maine.

The difference between the punishments for a Class C felony and a Class D misdemeanor can be stark – for a misdemeanor, the maximum sentence is 364 days in jail. For a Class C felony, it’s five years in prison.

L.D. 113 has broad support from Republican and Democratic lawmakers and from advocacy groups ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine to the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to the Christian Civic League of Maine.

However, the bill also faces plenty of opposition, mostly from law enforcement officials.

Lisa Marchese, head of the Criminal Division of the Maine Attorney General’s Office, testified on behalf of Attorney General Janet Mills. She said the bill would strip law enforcement of “important tools” and “undermine the state’s ability to prosecute.”

“Maine is an easy target for out-of-state drug dealers because of the potential for significant profits and the serious opiate problem facing our state,” Marchese said. “L.D. 113 would eliminate the biggest disincentive they have – which is prison time.

“Ironically, this bill would make it more difficult for law enforcement and prosecutors to hold accountable those who are most culpable and responsible,” Marchese said.

The approach is also a stark contrast from Gov. Paul LePage’s stance in combating Maine’s drug problem, which focuses on punishing offenders, rather than diverting funds for drug treatment.

At a news conference March 31, LePage touted his plan to beef up enforcement efforts and criticized Democrats and others as being weak on drugs.

LePage has not proposed any legislation or included any extra funding in his budget for drug treatment, but during that news conference, he said he’d consider it if, in turn, he gets support for increased law enforcement.

LePage is unlikely to support Katz’s bill. Maine Drug Enforcement Agency Director Roy McKinney testified Friday on behalf of the administration in opposition, saying the bill simply is too lenient on drug offenders.

Penalties for drug possession vary from state to state.

In Massachusetts, possession of a Class A drug, including heroin, morphine or GHB, carries a penalty of up to two years in prison. Class B drugs in Massachusetts, including cocaine, oxycodone and methamphetamine, carry a penalty of a year in prison. In New Hampshire, possession of illegal drugs other than marijuana is a Class B felony punishable by up to seven years in prison.

That puts Maine’s current penalties somewhere in the middle, but Katz said they are still too harsh. He said the state has spent $60 million a year enforcing drug laws, arrests have gone up 240 percent since the mid-1980s and yet drug use has never been higher. Additionally, four out of every five drug arrests is for possession.

“We are making felons out of Mainers suffering from the disease of addiction,” Katz said, adding that felony convictions are destructive to a person’s life, sometimes irreversibly so. “I’m not suggesting we let them off the hook, but we don’t need to ruin their lives forever.”

Katz pointed out that anyone convicted of a felony loses eligibility for public housing or student aid and must disclose the conviction on job applications.

Daniel Wathen, a former longtime judge and now a board member for the ACLU of Maine, said he was tough on drug offenders when he sat on the bench but said it hasn’t worked.

“Our criminal justice system must not be a revolving door for people with low-level drug offenses,” he said. “For years we have tried this approach and for years it has failed.”

Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, a former sheriff and current defense attorney, is the lead co-sponsor of the bill but couldn’t attend Friday’s hearing – he was in court defending a client charged with felony drug possession.

But in written testimony, Dion said Maine’s reliance on incarceration to fight the drug war is “unsustainable.”

Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, also stressed the importance of treatment in solving the drug crisis.

“We believe an alternative to incarceration for non-trafficking drug violations is appropriate because simply locking people up tears apart families,” he said.

Some lawmakers on the committee, though, said L.D. 113 doesn’t directly address the need for drug treatment.

Rep. Timothy Theriault, R-China, worried that the bill might go too far.

“Do we want to turn into the Netherlands?” he said. “Many of these people don’t want treatment. They want to be high.”

As lawmakers debate L.D. 113 and other drug-related bills, the divide about how best to tackle the problem could become a barrier.

“There has to be some middle ground,” said Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting.

Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee members will hold a work session on the bill next week before voting on whether to recommend it.

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