Lawmakers have not been able to compromise on two bills that would relax Maine’s drug laws, including one that would make possession of drugs for personal use a civil violation instead of a criminal offense.

The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee worked on both bills for weeks, but efforts to reach a deal fell apart Tuesday. The panel moved multiple versions of both bills out of committee, and it is not clear whether the full Legislature will be able to resolve the remaining conflicts.

Rep. Anne Perry, a Democrat from Calais, said she was still hopeful. Her bill, L.D. 967, would follow a model implemented this year in Oregon, the only state so far to decriminalize drug possession. Instead of going to jail, a person who has heroin or other substances in their possession would be required to pay a fine of up to $100 or get a health assessment, a potential first step to treatment. Selling or distributing drugs would still be illegal, but this bill could mean a dramatic change in the law for people who use them.

People in recovery, medical providers, faith groups, legislators and advocates all said the bill could help people get into recovery for substance use disorder. But two top officials in the Mills administration said law enforcement officials and prosecutors can still help people access treatment.

Lawmakers worked toward a compromise that would have allowed the first two instances of drug possession to be civil violations before the third would be a misdemeanor crime. But they could not agree on the details before the committee vote. Five Democrats endorsed the original version of the bill, while two others preferred the compromise version. Four Republicans voted against it. The bill will next go to the Maine House of Representatives.

“I’m not disappointed with the vote,” Perry said. “I think there was really, really good discussion. I had the chance to talk to a lot of people around this issue, and it sounds like there’s major disagreement, but it’s not. I think we’re just figuring out how to do this.”


At least 1,500 people are charged with drug possession every year in Maine.

Under Maine’s current drug laws, possessing less than 200 milligrams of most drugs is generally a misdemeanor, and people convicted face up to 364 days in jail. Having more than 200 milligrams is usually a felony on its own and carries a potential sentence of up to five years in state prison. The amount considered “personal use” varies by drug and by person, but advocates and those in recovery have said 200 milligrams is a very small amount, and a person with substance use disorder would likely be using 10 times or more than that in a day.

In 2001, Portugal decriminalized small amounts of drugs. People now get a warning, a fine or a treatment referral instead of a jail sentence. Research there has shown that the number of people receiving addiction treatment rose, while overdose deaths and new cases of HIV among drug users dropped. Some other countries, including the Netherlands and Switzerland, have taken similar steps.

Last year, Oregon voters became the first in the United States to decriminalize possession for personal use. The ballot measure took effect this year, so it is still too soon to know its impact. Washington, Vermont and Massachusetts are looking at similar proposals.

Another bill, L.D. 1675, faced a similar divide in opinion. Under the current law, people can face a felony trafficking charge just for carrying more than two grams of heroin or fentanyl. The bill would make it harder for prosecutors to get a conviction based only on the amount of drugs.

Supporters said people with substance use disorder are being wrongly charged with felony trafficking under Maine’s current law, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine testified that 39 states require more evidence of intent to sell drugs in order to bring those charges. Opponents worry that people who are actually selling drugs wouldn’t be adequately punished.


The committee did come to a compromise on the premise of the bill, but members could not agree on what amount might be considered evidence of trafficking. Democrats wanted a higher amount, while Republicans did not want to make that change. The full Legislature will also have to settle that debate.

“The people that are out here enforcing these drug laws, that’s a big step for them to take,” Rep. Richard Pickett, a Republican from Dixfield, said Monday. “We’ve moved, but I think we’ve moved as far as we’re going to.”

Attorney General Aaron Frey gave the committee recent data that showed how prosecutors apply the current statute differently across the state. In Androscoggin County, 75 percent of felony trafficking cases were based solely on the person having more than 2 grams of heroin or fentanyl. In Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, just 2 percent of cases were.

Assistant House Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross, a Democrat from Portland, is the sponsor of that bill. A spokeswoman did not return an email Tuesday evening about the vote, but Talbot Ross joined the committee for its work sessions.

“We’re criminalizing the wrong people here,” Talbot Ross said Monday.

The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted last month on a third bill – L.D. 994 – that would remove criminal penalties for the possession of hypodermic needles. All but one member endorsed that measure.

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.