AUGUSTA, Maine — Supporters of expanding Maine’s protections for people who seek help for drug overdose victims from criminal prosecution reached a compromise with Gov. Janet Mills on Wednesday after she threatened to veto a bill that passed both chambers of the Legislature.
The compromise on expanding the state’s Good Samaritan law sets the bill up for passage next week.
The bipartisan proposal that passed the Legislature looked to prevent anyone at the location of a drug overdose from being arrested or prosecuted for a non-violent crime, including if they were currently violating probation. But Mills, a former state prosecutor and attorney general, opposed that broad expansion of the Good Samaritan protections.
The bill looked to be in trouble on Tuesday when Mills asked the Legislature to recall it from her desk after it passed both chambers, saying it would protect people with drugs and cash in a backpack who prevent police from entering a scene where someone is overdosing from prosecution. She offered her own version, which would only protect people who are actively rendering aid from being prosecuted for crimes already included under current law.
“I do not want to veto this measure only to have the end result be that we disagreed and made no progress at all on the Good Samaritan law,” Mills wrote.
Advocates rejected Mills’ offer but entered negotiations with the governor the next day. The deal they reached would combine elements of Mills’ offer and the bill that passed the Legislature, according to Sen. Chloe Maxmin, D-Nobleboro, the bill’s primary sponsor.
It will limit protections to people actively rendering aid at a scene but broaden criminal protections to more non-violent crimes. It is a change that will represent a remarkable shift in how Maine approaches drug crimes as overdoses have increased during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Because what that looks like on the ground is that when we are with people who are using drugs, we can have a clear message to them that says, ‘If you help in any form, you will be protected because as Mainers we value life,’” said Courtney Allen, the organizing director for the Recovery Advocacy Project.
Allen said the change was necessary because the current law is too limited and caused people to hesitate before calling for aid. She said the language around what is considered rendering aid includes calling for medical help, providing that help or looking after someone who is overdosing until help arrives.
She was frustrated by the governor’s concerns about drug trafficking, saying such “what if” scenarios obscured the fact that people are in medical crisis when they are overdosing.
“We’re talking about saving lives,” she said. “We’re talking about Mainers who are dying on the floor.”
Similar arguments were voiced earlier this week as lawmakers debated who should be protected under the law. Lindsay Crete, a spokesperson for Mills, said the compromise would “protect those who are helping to save a life while not shielding those who are unwilling to help.”
Maxmin said the bill would have been unlikely to survive without the change. Recovery advocates would have rather seen the measure die under veto than accept Mills’ proposal, but she believed the support the bill saw in both chambers shifted the conversation toward compromise.
“If we can get a bill through that can change reality on the ground, we wanted to do it,” she said.