AUGUSTA, Maine — The Senate on Wednesday upheld Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a bill that would give witnesses to drug overdoses an affirmative defense in court. The Senate’s vote was at odds with a House of Representatives vote Tuesday to override the veto.

Wednesday’s vote marks the third time the Senate sustained a veto after the House voted to override it.

The bill, LD 1044, sought to encourage witnesses of drug overdoses to call for help by creating an affirmative defense against drug possession charges. That means defense attorneys would have a statutory path to acquittal, though supporters of the bill emphasized that it would not automatically exempt anyone from a possession charge

“This is one of those instances where it is really the right thing to do,” said Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, in support of overriding the veto during a brief Senate debate Wednesday morning. “I would hope that you would give this bill a second life.”

Sen. Geoff Gratwick, D-Bangor, who is a physician, was the only senator who co-sponsored the bill, which was introduced by medical professionals who serve in the Legislature. He said some people do walk away from a dying friend or acquaintance just because they fear legal repercussions.

“People who are using drugs are a different breed and they will leave their previous friends to die,” said Gratwick. “This is a way to save people’s lives and that’s what we’re here for.”

LePage argued in his veto letter than the bill would “create an unnecessary barrier for drug enforcement when drug use remains a significant scourge on our state.”

Maine had an estimated 169 overdose deaths in 2010, which was more than the 161 traffic fatalities that year, according to a release from the House Democratic Office.

The Senate’s vote on the override was 21-14, three votes short of the two-thirds needed to override a veto. The House’s vote was 97-47 with some representatives absent. With full attendance, a two-thirds vote in the House requires 101 votes.

The Legislature has sustained all 12 of LePage’s vetoes this session.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.