AUGUSTA –– The Legislature moved one step closer Wednesday to passing a bill that would increase the maximum prison term for importing heroin and other opiates into Maine. The House of Representatives voted unanimously to increase the maximum sentence from five to 10 years and make importing other illegal drugs into the state a felony.

The vote followed a failed effort by some lawmakers to pass a version that did not address drug importation and instead clarified conflicting sections of existing law that deal with drug possession. That House defeated it, 57-90.

The House vote follows a 26-8 vote Tuesday in the Senate in support of L.D. 1541, sponsored by Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Benton.

Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, a member of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said the proposal targets “the people who are importing this poison into our state.” Opponents argued there’s no evidence that stiffer penalties will lessen demand for the cheap heroin being brought into the state.

The House delayed action on a separate, hotly debated bill that would once again allow prosecutors to pursue felony charges against anyone caught in possession of heroin, methamphetamine, fentanyl or more than 14 grams of cocaine. Supporters of the bill, including Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat, argue that the threat of longer jail sentences is needed to force some drug users into treatment. Critics said a felony conviction can haunt people for life by preventing them from obtaining jobs and student loans or even voting.

The ACLU of Maine has said that lawmakers’ hastened response to the drug crisis is creating significant – and potentially harmful – changes to Maine’s criminal code.

The Senate on Tuesday narrowly approved the bill, L.D. 1554, by a vote of 18-16.

The votes come as lawmakers try to respond to a heroin crisis that resulted in 157 of the state’s 272 drug overdose deaths last year. The death toll represented a 31 percent increase from 2014.

The Legislature has provided funding to the LePage administration to hire additional drug agents to target the drug traffickers bringing heroin into Maine while funneling more money toward treatment. The drug importation bill would also create a new crime of aggravated illegal importation of scheduled drugs, punishable by up to 30 years in prison.

Both bills require additional votes in the House and Senate before being sent to Gov. Paul LePage.

Staff Writer Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

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Twitter: @stevemistler