PORTLAND — Police Chief James Craig says cocaine is at the root of much of the city’s crime and he would like to see the laws reflect that.

Craig says he plans to meet with other police chiefs, legislators and prosecutors in an effort to make possession of cocaine a felony rather than a misdemeanor, which it is typically for a first offense.

“Crack cocaine breeds violence,” Craig said. “Crack cocaine will destroy this community if we don’t stay ahead of it.”

Maine law says that possessing less than 4 grams of cocaine base, also called crack cocaine, or 14 grams of powder cocaine, is a misdemeanor for the first offense. A second offense is a felony, as is possessing more than those amounts.

Craig said Maine is unusual in treating simple possession of cocaine as a misdemeanor.

Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, co-chair of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, says she is open to listening to Craig’s proposal.

“I’d be glad to have a conversation with Chief Craig and take a look at the kinds of things he’s seeing. He’s the person on the ground,” she said.

Haskell said that increasing the severity of criminal penalties would have a cost because it would put more people in prison.

“If what he’s seeing out there is what’s happening, then folks ought to be held accountable, but we would have to find the money to do that,” she said.

The committee’s Senate chair, Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, was less receptive.

“We’re not going to start enhancing some of these crimes to fill up our prisons more than we have now,” he said. “The Legislature was very good at enhancing crimes and the time served, and we got ourselves in a pretty good mess.”

Gerzofsky said cocaine is addictive and a scourge, but committee hearings have shown that prescription drug abuse is a more serious problem in Maine.

Without a prescription, possession of oxycodone or hydrocodone, regardless of quantity, is a felony.

Federal sentencing requirements have been relaxed somewhat on crack cocaine compared with powder cocaine.

For more than two decades, crack cocaine was treated much more seriously than powder cocaine, with mandatory minimum sentences of five years for 5 grams or more. The disparity was reduced, though not eliminated, in a bipartisan vote in Congress this summer.

Craig said his call for making possession of a small amount of crack cocaine a felony is not targeting the minority community for unfair treatment.

Portland is not like other major cities in the country. Here, most of the people who use crack cocaine are white, not minorities, he said.

Craig said he wants to make the penalties more severe to prevent the city from following major U.S. cities where crack cocaine has hurt the quality of life.

Craig said two home invasions, three robberies and a stabbing in one week were all connected to drugs.

• Guns were used to threaten residents in the home invasions on Park Street and East Kidder Street. In each case, investigators believe drugs were at the heart of the dispute.

• A string of robberies in one night led to charges against a Standish man, who told police he was high on cocaine and stealing to get more.

• A stabbing Aug. 29 on Richmond Street stemmed from a confrontation over crack cocaine, police said.

Often, possessing just a couple of grams of crack cocaine broken into individual doses, called rocks, indicates that a person is selling the drug, Craig said.

More severe penalties for crack cocaine have influenced the drug trade, said Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. Often, suppliers will transport the drug as powder and hold off processing it into cocaine base until just before it is to be sold, he said.

McKinney said about 40 percent of the agency’s investigations deal with cocaine, on a par with diversion of prescription drugs.

More severe sentences for first offenses would give police greater leverage to encourage suspects to provide information, which is where most drug intelligence comes from, he said.

Stiffer penalties also increase the chances that a user will seek treatment, or be forced to by incarceration, he said.

McKinney noted that possessing any amount of heroin and methamphetamine is a felony.

“Usually, what the Legislature and any policymakers are looking at is the level of crime associated with those drugs,” he said.

Craig said crack cocaine is highly addictive and highly profitable, which could lead to violence as dealers compete for turf.

“Once the gangs start territorializing where cocaine is sold, then we’re going to see the real violence,” said Craig, who led a gang unit in the Los Angeles Police Department. “I saw the devastation of drugs in L.A. When crack cocaine came on the scene, the gangs and violence really erupted.”

 

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: [email protected]