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April 18, 2023

Maine Statehouse, Augusta. Credit: ACLU of Maine.

The ACLU of Maine Opposes Increased Penalties for People Living with Substance Use Disorder, Urges Opportunities for Treatment Over Incarceration

AUGUSTA – The Maine Legislature is considering several bills on Tuesday that would roll back important reforms to Maine’s drug laws by increasing criminal penalties for people living with substance use disorders. The bills rely on the core ideas of the failed War on Drugs by attempting to address a public health crisis with mass incarceration instead of increased access to healthcare, housing, and jobs.

ACLU of Maine Policy Counsel Michael Kebede will provide testimony in opposition to LDs 986, 994, 1509, and 1595 at 1PM, Tuesday, April 18, before the Joint Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety. The committee meeting can be streamed here.

Overall, these draconian bills would incarcerate people anywhere from 10 to 30 years simply for possessing small amounts of drugs, amounts less than many people with a substance use disorder may use in a single day.

Among several provisions, LD 1509 would reinstate an outdated law allowing prosecutors to obtain convictions for drug furnishing and trafficking without requiring prosecutors to prove a person even intended to share or sell drugs. For instance, the bill defines drug trafficking as possessing 2 grams or more of heroin or fentanyl without the need for the state to provide any evidence of a defendant’s intent to sell drugs. LD 986 would work in tandem, enhancing the so-called trafficking of fentanyl to a Class A felony with a sentence of up to 30 years in prison, 5 more than currently required for people convicted of murder.

“These bills would allow prosecutors to cut corners when seeking a drug trafficking conviction by saving them from having to prove to a judge and jury that the accused even sold any drugs. As long as a prosecutor can prove that the accused possessed a specific amount of a certain substance, then the accused is assumed – without any evidence – to be trafficking,” said Kebede. "These bills would further undermine some of the most basic principles of our legal system, including the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ and enlarge the state’s already unfair leverage over the people.”

Nearly every person in Maine knows someone who has been affected by the deadly overdose epidemic. It is abundantly clear that the racist drug policies of 50 years ago will not end this crisis. Lawmakers must shift their focus to increasing options for low-barrier treatment, decriminalizing drug possession for personal use, and addressing the root causes of substance use: a lack of job opportunities, inadequate access to healthcare, and unaffordable housing.