Public hearing Monday on act to reform drug sentencing laws

AUGUSTA, Maine (WABI) - Punishing drug traffickers not drug users. That's the idea behind a new bill being proposed in Augusta.

A public hearing took place this morning before the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

Joy Hollowell was at the State House and brings us the details.
Supporters of two bills to reform drug laws in Maine, gathered at the State House Monday morning ahead of a public hearing on one of the proposals. They chanted "Lead with Love" and urged lawmakers to consider compassion not criminalization when it comes to combating Maine's drug crisis.

"This bill would stop treating people who use drugs as criminals and stop people with substance use disorders as being considered traffickers."

Representative Pinny Beebe-Center (D-Rockland) is the sponsor of An Act to Reform Drug Sentencing Laws. She's proposing to relax or even eliminate some penalties for drug possession, saying substance abuse needs to be viewed as a public health issue not a crime.

"The number of women sentenced to jail and prison for misdemeanors, mostly low level drug crimes, has risen over 1,500% in less than 25 years," according to Rep. Beebe-Center, addressing the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. "That's currently six times the national average."

Numerous people spoke in support of the legislation, including Chantel St. Laurent who is three years sober this month. She said it took seven tries to get clean. St. Laurent cites a network of constant support as a primary reason for her recovery.

"I have been one of the fortunate few that was given treatment instead of felony use," testified St. Laurent, who is from Lewiston. "And because of that, I have found a life of recovery."

Representative Beebe-Center cited concerns about forced detox during incarceration.

"We tell ourselves that we're helping them but we're actually depriving them of the very thing that is most likely to help them stay off drugs the longest- human connections," she said.

Some committee members worry this could be a slippery slope towards decriminalizing drugs.

"So it seems this is a short step both philosophically and policy wise to move to the next step where we say possession of drugs that are being used by that person is also not a crime because it's really beyond their control," said Representative Janice Cooper, (D) Yarmouth.

The Director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency testified about proposed changes to the amount of drugs allowed.

"These far reaching consequences would impact public health and safety and undermine the ability for agencies to enforce the law and combat drug traffickings," he said.

Rep. Beebe-Center says she's open to negotiations and compromises when it comes to reforming Maine's drug sentencing laws. She hopes at the very least, this starts a conversation for change.

"The signs are clear, what we're doing is not working," Rep. Beebe-Center testified Monday.
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