A grassroots coalition of recovery advocates and state lawmakers from both parties is backing legislation aimed at addressing the sustained opioid crisis, including a change to Maine law that would make drug possession a civil offense rather than a crime.

The Maine Recovery Advocacy Project, which formed last year, held a virtual event Friday night to announce support for four proposed bills. Courtney Allen, the group’s policy director, expects more legislation to emerge that the project also would support.

“For too long the people who are directly or indirectly impacted by addiction, overdose, recovery, and the war on drugs have been left out of the public discourse about solutions,” she said. “In Maine, that ends today. ME-RAP is bringing people across the state together to advocate for people in recovery, enhance recovery-friendly policies, and ultimately end overdose death. We are working with our state elected officials to restructure drug sentencing laws, focus on access to treatment, fund recovery community organizations in every county in Maine, reduce the cost of phone calls for people in jail, and replace stigmatizing language in all of Maine’s laws.”

The four pieces of legislation targeted by the advocacy project are still being developed by lawmakers, but one, sponsored by Rep. Anne Perry, D-Calais, would effectively decriminalize personal possession of scheduled drugs. A person charged with this civil office would be able to choose between a fine or receiving an assessment for treatment.

“Treatment costs so much less than incarceration,” she said.

A similar bill was proposed last session but failed. However, voters in Oregon last year approved decriminalizing possession for personal use, Perry said.

Another bill would authorize $1 million in grant funding to open community recovery organizations in the seven Maine counties that currently do not have one: Kennebec, York, Waldo, Hancock, Franklin, Somerset and Piscataquis counties.

“In rural Maine, we struggle with access – to healthy food, transportation, affordable healthcare … and support systems for our neighbors in recovery,” said Sen. Chloe Maxmin, D-Nobleboro, the bill’s sponsor. “We need solutions that are by and for rural Maine, which is why I’m proud to sponsor a bill that would provide funding for every county to ensure that they have a recovery center.”

A third bill, sponsored by Rep. MaryAnne Kinney, a Republican from Knox, seeks to lower the cost of phone calls in Maine’s jails and prison to help those incarcerated, many for drug-related offenses, more easily connect with family and other support services. The average cost of a 15-minute phone call is about $5, Allen said. Her bill seeks to reduce that to $1.50.

The final piece of legislation would update state statutes to remove stigmatizing words like “drug user” and “inmate.” Rep. Bill Pluecker, an independent from Warren, said he’s sponsoring that bill because people are more than these labels.

Maine has been mired in a deadly epidemic for many years, but 2020 is expected to be the deadliest, exacerbated in many ways by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to data released this month from the state Attorney General’s Office, 380 individuals died from drug overdose in the first nine months of last year – the same number of deaths in all of 2019.

If the final three months of 2020 continue that trend, there could be more than 500 deaths when the final figures for 2020 are revealed. The previous high of 417 was set in 2017. In a little less than five years, 1,909 people have lost their lives to drug overdoses in Maine, the overwhelming majority from illicit opioids like heroin and fentanyl.

Allen said the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project already has 40 organizers from all over the state. Their collective goal, she said, is to “lift voices of those who are not traditionally heard from.”

“Some of these bills will be tough sells, and that’s OK,” Allen said. “We need to have these discussions.”

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