AUGUSTA — Two bills to broaden the decriminalization of marijuana in Maine got bipartisan support from lawmakers testifying at public hearings Thursday, but were opposed by law enforcement officials.

One measure, L.D. 754, would double the amount of usable marijuana that individuals could possess and still have it treated as a civil, rather than criminal, offense. The other, L.D. 750, would decriminalize possession of up to six marijuana plants.

“It is my fundamental belief that people who use marijuana for personal use on a recreational basis are not criminals,” said state Rep. Ben Chipman, an independent from Portland, to lawmakers on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

“I just do not think that it’s reasonable to allow 2.5 ounces to be a civil infraction but having zero tolerance for plants and forcing consumers to the black market,” he said.

The use of medical marijuana has been legal in Maine since 1999, and dispensaries were legalized in a 2009 referendum vote. In spring 2009, the Maine Legislature increased the amount of marijuana a person could possess without facing criminal charges from 1.25 ounces to 2.5 ounces. Chipman’s proposal would increase that amount to five ounces.

Republican state Reps. Rich Cebra of Naples and Lance Harvell of Farmington, and state Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, are co-sponsors of both proposals. Russell is also the lead sponsor of a yet-to-be finalized bill that would legalize marijuana.

“I think the idea is to make less people criminals,” Cebra said. “I believe in individual freedom and rights. A government that leaves people alone is a better government.”

Jonathan Leavitt, director of the Maine Marijuana Policy Initiative, said most people have used marijuana at some point and argued that laws making it illegal are ridiculous.

“Already to most people in this state the idea that an adult smoking a bowl or two after a long day of work somehow threatens public safety is as foolish as the idea that there’s something wrong with an Irishman enjoying a pint or six of Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day,” he said.

Many members of the public also testified in favor of the decriminalization measures, as did the Maine Civil Liberties Union.

But Evert Fowle, district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties and president of the Maine Prosecutors Association, said Maine’s current law is already far more progressive and less punitive than those in most other states.

“I am not aware of any other state, with the possible exception of Alaska, that has gone further than we have in decriminalizing marijuana,” said Fowle, who worked with lawmakers in 2009 to broaden decriminalization limits. “Ultimately, our current law was a big step forward for all of us and we have a very moderate and reasonable law on the books,” he said.

Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, also testified against both proposals.

“There are real health, social and economic consequences to the use of marijuana,” he said. “Maine has approached the issue of possession of a small amount in a thoughtful manner that balances the interests of society, the individual and the message that we send to our youth.”

Another bill that received public testimony Thursday, L.D. 44, would increase the penalty for possession of cocaine or crack cocaine.

Portland Police Chief James Craig testified in favor of the measure.

“My goal is not to fill up the jails with crack and cocaine dealers; rather, I want the message out to drug dealers … you cannot come into Maine with 14 grams of cocaine and get a free ride,” he said, adding that cocaine use and trafficking is “not just a Portland problem.”

Under existing law, possession of 14 grams or less of cocaine is a Class D crime, punishable by up to 364 days in jail and a $2,000 fine. The proposal would make possession of any amount of cocaine a Class C crime, punishable by up to five years in jail and a $5,000 fine.

The committee will schedule work sessions on the measures in the coming weeks.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

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