Bills would relax pot laws, increase penalties for cocaine

Posted March 17, 2011, at 7:10 p.m.
Last modified March 18, 2011, at 1:48 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine would have some of the nation’s most relaxed laws when it comes to marijuana possession if a Portland lawmaker’s efforts gain any traction in Augusta.

Rep. Ben Chipman, I-Portland, on Thursday introduced LD 754, which would decriminalize possession of up to five ounces of marijuana, and LD 750, which would allow people to have up to six marijuana plants without facing criminal penalties.

“It is my fundamental belief that people who use marijuana for personal use on a recreational basis are not criminals,”  Chipman told members of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee.

Chipman’s bills do not legalize marijuana. Both possession and cultivation of the drug still would be against the law, but minor offenses would be treated as civil infractions similar to traffic violations. Those in violation could be fined — but not arrested or jailed — and they would have no criminal record.

Currently in Maine, possession of less than 2.5 ounces of marijuana is a civil violation, the maximum punishment for which is a $1,000 fine. Under Chipman’s bill, the fine would be lowered to a maximum of $250 and would apply to amounts of up to 5 ounces. The bill also would remove criminal penalties currently in place for amounts between 2.5 ounces and 5 ounces.

Supporters of Chipman’s bills urged lawmakers to rethink pouring more resources into what they believe has been a failed war on drugs.

“Let public guardians get back to protecting us all from violence at the hands of criminals and protecting our property from car thieves, burglars and con artists,” said Caroline Evans of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a Massachusetts-based group of current and former members of law enforcement who favor regulation — not prohibition — of drug use. “We will all be much better off.”

Marijuana is already legal for medical use in 14 states — including Maine — and the District of Columbia. Thirteen states — also including Maine — have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

No state, however, has legalized the drug.

But Maine lawmakers are likely to be among those who consider such a plan this year. Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, on Thursday expressed support for Chipman’s bills, but also informed the committee that she will introduce a sweeping bill to legalize and tax marijuana in Maine.

Lawmakers in Rhode Island and in Washington state are considering similar legalization efforts. Last year in California, voters rejected Proposition 19, the ballot initiative that would have legalized marijuana in that state.

Opponents of efforts to relax marijuana laws traditionally draw opposition from law enforcement, and Chipman’s efforts were no exceptions.

The bills were opposed by the Maine Prosecutors Association, which described Maine’s current law as one of the nation’s most progressive. Prosecutors also say that they are more heavily focused on treatment and rehabilitation than harsh penalties.

Also opposing them was Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. McKinney said one bill would enable youths to grow enough marijuana for significant street sales with only the threat of a misdemeanor.

Also on Thursday, the committee considered LD 44 and LD 773. LD 44 would increase penalties for possession of cocaine. LD 773 would increase penalties for trafficking of methamphetamine and amphetamine pills.

Rep. Gary E. Plummer, R-Windham,  introduced LD 44, which would make the possession of any amount of cocaine or crack cocaine a felony. Currently, possession of smaller amounts of the drug is a misdemeanor.

“I think this is the time. I think the use of cocaine has reached the point when it is time to enhance the penalty,” Plummer said in introducing the bill. “It goes way beyond a recreational drug.”

Portland Police Chief James Craig was the first to testify in favor of Plummer’s bill, saying it would help stem the crime associated with cocaine and give prosecutors more leverage in ferreting out drug dealers from out-of-state. Craig had a warning for lawmakers on the committee.

“Please look at me as your future,” said Craig, who referenced his many years combating drugs and drug violence as a member of the Los Angeles Police Department. “It would probably surprise you how similar Portland is today to Los Angeles was 25 years ago.”

Those opposed to increasing penalties for possession of cocaine or methamphetamine said it only will serve to fill up Maine prisons. Alysia Melnick, the public policy counsel for the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said treatment is seven times more cost effective than incarceration.

“The lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key approach isn’t working,” said Melnick said in a news release. “Prison is expensive and does not treat the root causes of drug abuse and addiction.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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