Last year the Maine Legislature reduced first-time possession of small amounts of heroin from a felony to a misdemeanor. This was a step in the right direction – rising arrests and harsh penalties have done nothing to fix Maine’s drug problem.

Attorney General Janet Mills is now pushing a bill, L.D. 1554, to reinstate felony charges for first-time possession of heroin. In her letter in defense of L.D. 1554, she quotes Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin as saying the best time to get people the help they need is “when the blue lights are flashing.”

But in that same interview, Shumlin goes on to say Vermont’s system wasn’t working, “so we changed the system … we said if you go to treatment, if you move to recovery, you will never see a judge or have a criminal record … we move non-violent offenders into recovery.” And in Vermont, low-level possession charges are misdemeanors, not felonies.

Attorney General Mills argues that felony charges will help law enforcement move people into pretrial diversion programs or drug court. Those are noble goals, but they are not the realistic outcome of felony charges. Last year, 1,800 people were convicted for schedule W drugs like heroin; Maine’s drug courts were able to serve fewer than 300.

Meanwhile, pretrial diversion programs are virtually non-existent in Maine. Even if they did exist, they would not require a felony charge to access. And individuals who do get felony records also face numerous collateral consequences – like barriers to education and jobs – that actually make it harder for them to recover.

Like Vermont, it’s time for Maine to change the system and start prioritizing treatment over criminal records.

Alison Beyea

executive director

Oamshri Amarasingham

advocacy director

ACLU of Maine

Portland


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