Dozens of advocates testified Wednesday in support of a bill that would decriminalize all drug possession in Maine and treat the state’s opioid crisis strictly as a public health issue.

The Mills administration strongly opposes the measure, saying decriminalization will have unintended consequences and hasn’t worked in Oregon.

Advocates, however, maintain that arresting people who use drugs does more harm than good.

“Criminalization of drug use and people who use drugs is a public health crisis,” said Maggie Zall of Maine Access Points, a needle exchange and statewide public health program. “Why is it a public health crisis? Because the public response to drug use causes more individual and systemic harm than drug use in itself.

“Because the public response to drug use has never and will never stop the existence of drugs, and interdiction efforts have only made the drug supply more contaminated and unpredictable. Criminalization causes harm regardless of whether an individual becomes abstinent from drugs as a result of said criminalization.”

The public hearing before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services committee also included influential opponents of the bill.


Rick Desjardins, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, said decriminalizing all drug possession would have many unintended consequences, including hampering court-ordered programs that help people with substance use disorder.

“Frequently, cases involving possession of drugs developed by our state, county and local law enforcement partners lead to substantive furnishing and trafficking cases,” Desjardins said. “In my previous experience as a municipal police officer, interacting with individuals charged with simple possession provided the opportunity to work with families, court diversion programs, community-based treatment and other resources. These programs frequently had a huge impact in changing behavior.”

And Gordon Smith, Gov. Janet Mills’ opioid response director, pointed to Oregon as an example of why Maine should not decriminalize drug possession. Through November, Maine experienced a modest decline in drug overdose deaths in 2023 compared to 2022 – the first decrease in many years – while Oregon is seeing overdose deaths skyrocket.

Oregon lawmakers are now considering amending the state law after decriminalization went into effect in 2021. Oregon had the largest jump in synthetic opioid overdose deaths when comparing 2019 to 2023, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those deaths surged from 84 in 2019 to 1,100 in 2023, although public health experts are still debating what role decriminalization played in the increase, The Associated Press reported.

“The removal of these (drug possession) provisions from Maine law at a time when the street drugs are the most lethal they have ever been is not a proposal the (Mills) administration can support at this time,” Smith said. “We continue to review the decriminalization experience in Oregon.”

But Dr. Lani Graham, a family practice physician and former chief public health officer for Maine, supports decriminalization.


“A public health approach is exactly what this pandemic has needed for many years,” Graham said. “This means treating people who are ill with substance use disorders as patients needing services and not as criminals needing jail time. Current Maine law has the effect of treating people ill with substance use disorders as criminally responsible for their illnesses by finding them guilty of a felony for simply possessing drugs that they have become addicted to. This is akin to arresting an alcoholic and charging him or her with a felony for possessing bottles of alcohol.”


The bill is sponsored by state Rep. Lydia Crafts, D-Newcastle, and has attracted three Republican co-sponsors, including state Rep. Lucas John Lanigan, R-Sanford.

Lanigan recounted how he almost lost his son to substance use disorder, and how few resources were available for help. His son has since recovered and has been sober for 14 months, but he nearly died.

“Unlike many families, we did not have to say a final goodbye to an amazing young man,” Lanigan said. “We can invest now or we can all pay later.”

Maine House Republicans have not yet taken a position on the bill, spokesman John Bott said.


The bill also would establish a dedicated fund from taxes generated from the sale of cannabis products to expand treatment, mental health, peer support and harm reduction services.

In addition, the bill would establish centers in all Maine counties where patients can get health needs assessments, screenings for substance use disorder treatment, support for basic needs and connections to treatment, harm reduction and recovery services.

The bill does not yet have a fiscal note estimating its cost.

Smith, the Mills administration official, said while cost estimates are not yet complete, the price tag would be enormous, making the bill “unrealistic in its goals and is impractical in its approach.”

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