AUGUSTA — Lawmakers heard conflicting testimony Monday on a bill that would target out-of-state heroin traffickers by increasing the penalties for bringing illegal drugs into Maine.

While law enforcement officials said the threat of longer prison sentences would send a powerful message to drug traffickers, opponents said Maine prosecutors already have – and regularly use – the option of seeking stiff penalties for trafficking convictions.

“Our prosecutors in Maine . . . they use the most effective tools they have and they take this very seriously and they don’t use this (importation) statute,” said John Pelletier, a member of the Maine Criminal Law Advisory Commission. “It is just not the most effective tool against this scourge.”

The bill, L.D. 1541, would increase the punishments for importing most illegal drugs, but Monday’s discussion in the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee made it clear the measure’s top target is heroin traffickers bringing the drug into Maine from states to the south.

Under the proposal, the maximum penalty for importing heroin into Maine would increase from five years to 10 years, while the maximum sentence for importing illegal drugs considered less serious would increase from 364 days to five years. Importing larger quantities of heroin, cocaine or other “Schedule W” drugs could trigger a new crime, “aggravated illegal importation,” carrying a penalty of up to 30 years in prison.

“It is my belief that stiffening our current laws will help to deter those importing these drugs from entering our state,” said bill sponsor Sen. Scott Cyrway, a Benton Republican who was a D.A.R.E. officer in schools for 23 years and still works as the state’s D.A.R.E. training officer. “If you do choose to cross our border and are caught, the consequences will be so significant that perhaps it will prevent others from doing the same.”


Overdose deaths from heroin and other opiates have surged in Maine and across the country in recent years, driven by a combination of tighter restrictions on prescription opiates, falling heroin prices and new, dangerously potent strains of the drug being sold. Maine had 174 accidental overdose deaths in the first nine months of 2015, with 71 caused at least in part by heroin.

The public hearing on Cyrway’s proposal was held roughly one week after the Legislature passed, and Gov. Paul LePage signed, a bill devoting $3.7 million to hire additional drug agents and to expand treatment programs in the state. But Monday’s debate showed that differences remain among police and those in the court system over the how to address the heroin crisis.

Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, and Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry both testified in support of Cyrway’s bill.

“Last year, MDEA increased the number of heroin and other opioid importation cases by a third over the previous year’s number,” McKinney said. “The department supports this measure as another tool for law enforcement and prosecutors to have available in its effort to combat illegal drug importation.”

Sagadahoc County District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau, who took no position on the bill, said one of the major challenges with the existing importation law is that police and prosecutors must prove a suspect actually brought the drugs into Maine. Rushlau said he could only remember one drug importation case during his time in office.

Under Maine’s existing drug trafficking law, possession of 2 grams or more of heroin already carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison while possession of 6 grams or more becomes “aggravated trafficking,” carrying up to a 30-year sentence.


“So the tools to deal with heroin right now are pretty significant,” said Rushlau, noting that one trafficking suspect was recently sentenced to 25 years in prison. “It is clear that judges have the capacity to impose very long sentences on traffickers.”

Committee members were divided on the issue as well. Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, and Rep. Catherine Nadeau, D-Winslow, supported Cyrway’s proposal, but Brunswick Democratic Sen. Stan Gerzofsky said he hasn’t heard from any district attorneys or judges clamoring for the change.

“This bill isn’t really going to accomplish much that isn’t already accomplished through the existing laws and sentences,” Gerzofsky said.

The committee also heard testimony Monday on a bill, L.D. 1534, sponsored by Burns that would create a four-person State Police Interdiction Unit specially trained to detect and interrupt the flow of illegal drugs into Maine. A former Maine State Police trooper, Burns said the program would be similar to a former pilot program in Maine that resulted in nine people being charged with drug trafficking and the seizure of $86,000 in cash and five firearms during a 12-week period in 2013. Burns did not provide a cost estimate for the program.


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