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Maine bill would soften drug possession crimes

BY ERIC RUSSELL  AUGUSTA 

The sponsor, Republican Sen. Roger Katz, said incarcerating people for their addiction does not address their treatment needs.

Sen. Roger Katz doesn't want Maine to be tough on crime or soft on crime.

He just wants the state to be smart, especially when it comes to drugs.

Katz, an Augusta Republican, has sponsored a bill, L.D. 113, that would reduce penalties for certain drug offenses, specifically possession, and keep lower-level offenders from serving long prison sentences.

The savings would not only improve prison operations, Katz said, but could then be steered toward treatment for the growing number of Mainers who have become addicted.

"People who repeatedly traffic in the sale of illegal drugs to our children and our neighbors ought to be locked up," Katz said Friday while introducing his bill to the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. "This bill is not for them."

Katz's bill has broad support from Republican and Democratic lawmakers and from advocacy groups ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine to the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to the Christian Civic League of Maine.

But the approach also is a stark contrast from what Gov. Paul LePage has advocated to combat Maine's drug problem.

At a March 31 news conference, LePage touted his plan to beef up enforcement efforts and also to criticize Democrats and others as weak on drugs.

LePage has not proposed any legislation or included any extra funding in his budget for treatment, but during that news conference, he said he'd considering it if he has support for increased enforcement.

As lawmakers debate L.D. 113 and other drug-related bills, the divide about how best to tackle the problem could become a barrier.

Although many testified Friday in favor of Katz's bill, there was plenty of opposition as well, mostly from law enforcement officials.

Lisa Marchese, head of the Attorney General's Office criminal division, testified on behalf of Attorney General Janet Mills. She said the bill would strip law enforcement of "important tools," and "undermine the state's ability to prosecute."

"Maine is an easy target for out-of-state drug dealers because of the potential for significant profits and the serious opiate problem facing our state," Marchese said. "L.D. 113 would eliminate the biggest disincentive they have - which is prison time.

"Ironically, this bill would make it more difficult for law enforcement and prosecutors to hold accountable those who are most culpable and responsible," Marchese said.

Katz said Maine's drug laws are harsh, even by federal standards.

"We are making felons out of Mainers suffering from the disease of addiction," Katz said.

He said felony convictions are destructive to a person's life, sometimes irreversibly so.

Daniel Wathen, a former longtime judge and now a board member to the ACLU of Maine, said he was tough on drug offenders when he sat behind the bench but said it hasn't worked.

"Our criminal justice system must not be a revolving door for people with low-level drug offenses," said he said. "For years we have tried this approach and for years it has failed."

Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee members will hold a work session on the bill next week before voting on its recommendation.

The law firm of Hallett, Zerillo, and Whipple, P.A. are Maine attorneys representing clients who have been seriously injured, accused of crimes in state and federal court, have business litigation needs or family law and divorce cases. Various attorneys in the firm have been locally and nationally recognized for their achievements, including admission into New England Super Lawyers, the Client's Choice Award from AVVO.com, and the President's Award from the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. For more information on the firm, please visit www.HZWlaw.com.

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