The State House is seen in Augusta. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Democratic-led Maine Legislature endorsed a bill that would reduce the possession of scheduled drugs from a crime to a civil penalty on Thursday in a victory for criminal justice reform advocates this session.

The bill from Rep. Anne Perry, D-Calais, is one of the biggest pieces of criminal justice legislation introduced in Maine this year. It would follow a model implemented in Oregon, where people who possess a scheduled drug such as heroin for personal use would be required to pay a $100 fine or submit to an assessment for treatment. 

It passed the House in a 77-62 vote on Thursday and later cleared the Senate. The proposal faces further action in both chambers after dividing Democrats on the Legislature’s public safety committee. It was opposed by the administration of Gov. Janet Mills, Attorney General Aaron Frey, police and legislative Republicans, making for a difficult road to final passage.

Perry’s bill would follow a first-in-the-nation model from Oregon, where people who have scheduled drugs would be required to pay a $100 fine or be assessed for treatment within 45 days. Possessing drugs now carries a range of penalties that vary by amount and type, ranging from felonies for heroin or cocaine and misdemeanors for prescription drugs.

Experts and advocates who backed the measure, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services in Maine, cited the need for Maine to divert resources from incarceration to treatment. The bill is estimated to save $1 million per year in incarceration costs.

“We do need to treat this disorder and law enforcement will be a part of it, but law enforcement is not the gateway to recovery,” Perry said on the House floor. “It’s a gateway to isolation and suicide.”

But the massive change was too much for Maine law enforcement agencies, including the Democratic governor’s administration. The Maine Drug Enforcement Agency opposed the proposal in part because it did not establish harsher penalties for repeat offenders and not outlining possession amounts in the bill.

“These people need help and law enforcement is the best social worker to help these people,” said Rep. Gary Drinkwater, R-Milford, in opposing the bill.