Lawmakers on Monday heard testimony for and against a bill that would implement Gov. Paul LePage’s plan to boost the number of law enforcement officers, prosecutors and judges dedicated to prosecuting drug crimes in Maine.
LePage, like the governors of Vermont and New Hampshire, used his State of the State address to talk about the “troubling epidemic” of drug abuse in the state. But in contrast to Vermont’s and New Hampshire’s governors, who called for improving treatment and services for addicts, LePage has focused almost exclusively on more arrests and imprisonment of drug dealers.
Sen. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, who sponsored the bill on behalf of the governor, kicked off the hearing before the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee in Augusta by addressing critics who say the proposal doesn’t include any treatment or prevention initiatives. Plummer said he hoped opponents could take off their “blue-tinged” glasses – a reference to Democrats – long enough to recognize that increased enforcement was part of the solution.
“We’ll never be able to offer enough treatment if we don’t stop the source of drugs coming into the state,” he said.
Plummer said he didn’t anticipate that huge incarceration rates would result from the proposal. He said the bill is designed to disrupt trafficking and hunt down dealers, and rejected the notion that the war on drugs has been lost.
“If we’ve lost the war on drugs, we’ve lost society,” Plummer said.
Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, the committee’s House chairman, quickly identified himself as one of the critics to whom Plummer was referring, saying that he has been “strident” in his view that any solution to the crisis must include a balance of law enforcement and public health intervention.
“I think (LePage) made a correct half-step. I wanted to help him complete that step,” said Dion, a former Cumberland County sheriff.
Some of the state’s top law enforcement officials, as well as a prosecutor and a representative of the state’s Judicial Branch, spoke in support of LePage’s plan to add an estimated $3 million in new spending for 14 agents in the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, four judges to preside over cases in the state drug court and four assistant attorneys general dedicated to prosecution of drug crimes.
Roy McKinney, director of the MDEA, said the agency now has funding for only 32 agents, about one-third as many as the agency had when it was created in 1992.
Mary Ann Lynch, government and media counsel for the Judicial Branch, said Maine has 53 trial judges for a population of 1.3 million residents, compared with New Hampshire’s 99 trial judges for nearly the same population, and Vermont, which has 51 trial judges for a population less than half the size of Maine’s.
“If we are to address the challenges facing us, the new judges the governor is proposing are sorely needed,” Lynch said.
Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Morris also rejected claims from critics that the proposal would be used to imprison drug-addicted pregnant women. He said the bill was designed to imprison the “Bloods and Crips” and other gang-related organizations that may be operating in the state.
Some critics argued that the state’s efforts to combat drug addiction mainly through law enforcement have proven ineffective in the past and others said it drains resources from the more cost-efficient approaches of drug treatment and education.
A February report by the Maine Sunday Telegram showed that the number of people seeking treatment for opiate abuse has more than doubled in the past decade, to about 4,800 in 2013. In the last three years alone, demand for treatment has increased 15 percent. The number seeking treatment for heroin abuse has doubled since 2010, to 1,820.
An attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, Oamshri Amarasingham, called the bill, L.D. 1811, “a step backward” and said addiction should be treated as a public health issue rather than a criminal matter.
“Putting dealers in prison does not reduce demand, and putting users in prison does not reduce addiction,” Amarasingham said.
Camden-based attorney Jeremy Pratt, who spoke on behalf of the Maine Criminal Defense Lawyers, said from his experience practicing law mostly in the midcoast, the MDEA focuses almost entirely on targeting drug users who deal drugs to feed their addiction, rather than major commercial drug traffickers.
“There should be a philosophical shift within the MDEA to focus on commercial traffickers,” Pratt said.
Jay Nutting, the Maine lobbyist for the Drug Policy Alliance, called LePage’s proposal “representative of a failed policy and one out of step (with) what other states and countries are doing.”
Two other speakers raised concerns about the bill.
John Pelletier, executive director of Maine Commission of Indigent Legal Services, said the bill didn’t account for the costs of paying lawyers to represent those arrested as part of stepped-up law enforcement efforts.
Maine has no public defender’s office, as other states do, and instead hires private lawyers through the commission to represent criminal defendants who are too poor to pay for an attorney themselves.
An attorney for the Maine Medical Association, Jessa Barnard, said her organization does not oppose LePage’s proposal but finds it “troubling” that the state would focus on increased prosecution while cutting funds for drug treatment, putting limits on access to methadone and suboxone for opioid addicts and in the wake of budget cuts for MaineCare.
State House Bureau Chief Steve Mistler contributed to this report.
Scott Dolan can be reached at 791-6304 or at: