LePage’s drug enforcement bill watered down after impassioned debate over funding

Posted March 26, 2014, at 7:37 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Hours of debate and procedural maneuvers around Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to beef up drug enforcement in Maine culminated Wednesday evening with a heavily divided recommendation from the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee.

The recommendation scales back LePage’s plan, adds money for drug addiction treatment programs and essentially puts to bed an attempt to fund the program with revenues from legalized recreational marijuana.

For about an hour late Wednesday afternoon, it appeared as if the committee would not be able to find a majority on anything, but after five failed votes, a scaled-back version of LePage’s proposal emerged with an 8-4 endorsement of an amendment proposed by Rep. Jethro Pease, R-Morrill. But most members of the committee agreed that because of the cost, it has little chance of enactment.

LePage’s original bill, LD 1811, called for the creation of 22 new state positions, including 14 new investigators for the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, four new assistant attorney generals and four District Court judges in Lewiston, Presque Isle, Bangor and Portland. The cost of LePage’s proposal was pegged at around $3.2 million annually.

Pease’s amendment reduced the cost to a maximum of about $2.25 million, $2 million for enforcement — two judges, two prosecutors and 10 MDEA agents — plus $750,000 for existing drug addiction treatment programs.

There was little disagreement about the need for more anti-drug programs in Maine. Several committee members cited a recent spike in illicit drug activity, including opiate use and the manufacture of methamphetamine.

“We need to do something immediately; it’s a huge problem,” said Sen. David Dutremble, D-Biddeford, who is a medical rescue worker by trade. “The increase I’ve seen in Biddeford alone while doing my job is astronomical. We’ve never seen these numbers with heroin overdoses. Cuts in treatment have caused them to go back to heroin, apparently.”

But Dutremble and others said advancing the bill without funding would have the same effect as killing it.

“I think there needs to be treatment, and I think there needs to be enforcement,” said Rep. Thomas Tyler, R-Windham. “But I also think there needs to be a way to pay for it.”

Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, revived an amendment he has been working on since last week that would fully fund the governor’s bill with tens of millions of dollars left over. He proposed putting the legalization of recreational marijuana, along with taxation and regulation, to a statewide vote next year. Under Wilson’s amendment, the governor’s bill would not be funded until 2016, and the bill would not take effect without that funding.

An effort to bring a marijuana legalization question to the statewide ballot, which was forward by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, failed last year.

“Honestly, if last year the [Legislature] had made a different decision and if the referendum were successful, right now we wouldn’t be in this position because we’d have a funding source identified for treatment, enforcement and a whole host of other things,” said Wilson. “I think we could come to consensus … in the fact that if we don’t identify funding, I don’t think we’re going to find it at the Appropriations Committee.”

Some committee members said they didn’t support legalizing a drug in order to pay for anti-drug programs.

“So we’re going to legalize what will become a vice for people to enforce drug laws?” said Rep. Joshua Plante, D-Berwick. “That seems pretty counterintuitive and like bad logic.”

Sen. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, who sponsored LD 1811 for LePage, at one point tried to find support for the original bill, except reduced by half.

“My thought is that if this is something that’s wanted and needed badly enough and the chief executive wants to get behind it, they can find the funding somewhere,” said Plummer.

David Boyer, Maine’s political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, which is leading an effort to put a marijuana legalization question to a future referendum, said the state is missing out on an opportunity to generate significant new revenue. He said it’s only a matter of time before marijuana becomes legal in Maine and elsewhere.

“Other states that have moved forward with marijuana legalization have benefited greatly while Maine continues to flush that money down the drain and give it to the drug dealers rather than to licensed, regulated taxpaying businesses,” said Boyer. “Colorado has significant money to spend on substance abuse and lots of other things while this committee is scraping the bottom of the barrel.”

Paul McCarrier, a legislative liaison for Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, opposes legalization of recreational pot and said it’s not as easy as Boyer says.

“When we’re considering funding from recreational marijuana we should not forget the cost to implement, administer and enforce the recreational marijuana program,” he said.

With two minority reports, LD 1811 heads to the full Legislature with an uncertain future, but it will be the subject of more debate and votes in the coming weeks.

 

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