It’s not rational to risk a felony conviction for one hit of heroin or one pill of oxycodone, nor does it make sense to jail low-level drug offenders, or to brand those addicts with a life-ruining criminal record.

Yet that is the rationale for how Maine law is written, with severe penalties for the possession of even very small amounts of controlled substances. These penalties have crowded our jails and prisons and filled out court dockets for years now, but they have not made a dent in the state’s substance abuse problem.

That shows just how little an effect these harsh penalties have on people in the throes of addiction, and makes the case for further distinguishing between those who seek out drugs to serve their illness, and those who help bring drugs to Maine for their own profit.

L.D. 113, from Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, would do that, by lowering the first offense for simple possession of the most addictive drugs from either a Class B or C felony — where it is grouped with other, more destructive acts — to a Class D misdemeanor.

The proposal is not perfect. Katz already has removed a provision that would have made it more difficult to upgrade a possession charge to trafficking, and other tweaks may be necessary to better separate users from dealers.

But it is the right reaction to what’s happening on the ground.

Katz’s bill comes at a time when Maine is suffering from the second wave of an opiate epidemic. People who became hooked on legitimately prescribed pain medication that is now scarcely available are switching to strong, cheap heroin, creating a market for out-of-state traffickers.

It is those traffickers who deserve the attention and resources of Maine law enforcement, not the people whose only crime is servicing their own addiction.

That latter group would not get off easy under the changes proposed in the bill; A judge still would be able to sentence an offender to up to 364 days in jail.

But offenders would not be burdened with a felony. If and when they beat their addiction — no small feat given the unfortunate scarcity of treatment options in Maine — they would be better able to compete for a job, not having to admit to being a convicted felon on their application.

They also would remain eligible for public housing and federal student aid. They would still be able to get any number of state and federal licenses required for some work.

In short, they would be able to move on with their lives, and return to being the productive members of society many addicts were before they were captured by addiction.

That should be the aim of Maine’s drug laws, to recognize that low-level offenders are acting on behalf of their addiction, and that the state’s best interests are served in getting that person to treatment, using a mix of encouragement and punishment that still leaves them with a life to come back to.

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