LePage’s ‘war on drugs’ plan spurs effort to vote on legalizing, taxing marijuana

Posted March 24, 2014, at 5:57 p.m.
Rep. Mark Dion
Rep. Mark Dion

AUGUSTA, Maine — Discussion about expanding treatment for drug addicts, or perhaps legalizing and taxing marijuana, has slowed review of Gov. Paul LePage’s legislation to significantly expand Maine’s ability to arrest and prosecute drug dealers.

In his State of the State address in February, LePage said he wants 22 new state positions — 14 new Maine Drug Enforcement agents, four new prosecutors in the attorney general’s office, and four new District Court judges in Lewiston, Presque Isle, Bangor and Portland — to crack down on drug trafficking in Maine.

Some critics argue, however, that LePage’s proposal focuses too much on policing and too little on drug treatment. This conflict confronted the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee on Monday, which couldn’t come to consensus on LePage’s plan.

Sen. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, who sponsored the governor’s bill, favors keeping the proposal intact, but with additional funding for bailiffs, court clerks and other legal system infrastructure, which the judicial system said is needed to support LePage’s plan.

His amendment would make the total cost of the bill approximately $3.2 million annually.

Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, co-chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee, is advocating for capping the governor’s plan to a cost of $2 million a year, while funding more addiction treatment, including raising an existing cap on Suboxone and methadone treatments from six months to 12 months, as well as raising reimbursement rates for opioid treatments from $60 to $70.

Dion’s proposal also includes reinstating a drug court in Bangor and investigating the possibility of a program that allows law enforcement officers to divert drug offenders to treatment programs instead of arresting them.

In addition, Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, said he is working with Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, on an amendment to put recreational marijuana legalization to a statewide vote.

Wilson said this amendment would include a provision that designates some of the proceeds of marijuana taxes to drug law enforcement and treatment measures. However, one problem with Wilson’s amendment is that the revenue would not start flowing until 2016.

None of the proposals made it to a committee vote on Monday, though Dion said the lawmakers should be prepared to vote soon.

“I think we have discussed this bill in great detail,” said Dion. “We will take a vote on this bill on Wednesday.”

Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, co-chairman of the committee, said he isn’t yet convinced that there is a problem to solve.

“I haven’t heard for the need of this,” said Gerzofsky. “I haven’t seen a need for this bill to come in except from a governor who’s in a re-election campaign.”

Plummer and others disagreed with Gerzofsky, but said they likely wouldn’t support a heavily amended bill, especially if it includes a referendum for the legalization of recreational marijuana.

“I’m not interested in tying this bill to legalization of marijuana or a referendum to ask the people if they want to legalize marijuana,” said Plummer. “I see that as an approach to get before us something that we weren’t able to get before us previously.”

Russell said part of the appeal of regulating and taxing recreational marijuana is that it would be lucrative for the state. She estimates that it could raise some $28 million per year.

“The governor put forth a challenge of how do we deal with heroin addiction and cocaine addiction and trafficking,” she said. “I agree with that and this is a responsible alternative proposal to deal with that.”

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