AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on Monday unanimously recommended against passage of a bill that aimed to encourage people to call 911 to report an overdose by preventing law enforcement from charging with drug possession those helping the victim.
The committee also heard testimony about lengthening the statute of limitations on prosecution of crimes of sexual abuse when the suspect is a person in a position of authority, such as a therapist.
On the overdose-reporting bill, many committee members said they thought it was well-intentioned but that more research is needed.
“I reluctantly vote no,” said Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea. She said she wanted to know the effect of such “safe harbor provisions” in other states. “Have they led to more people calling 911?”
Gordon Smith, executive vice president of the Maine Medical Association, said there were between 160 and 170 accidental drug overdose deaths last year in Maine and many could have been prevented if someone in the household had called 911. Some don’t call for fear of being arrested for drug possession, Smith said.
“These are people whose lives could be saved,” said Smith.
Proponents of the bill said Washington state and New Mexico have similar laws, which have led to fewer drug overdose deaths.
Natalie Morse, director of MaineGeneral Health’s Prevention Center, was emotional in urging the committee to recommend the bill’s passage.
“I know many people who have died [from drug overdoses],” she said.
Morse said she also has talked with people who have lost a loved one to a drug overdose.
“They regret making that decision [not to call 911] because of fear,” she said.
Rep. Stephen Hanley, D-Gardiner, said the bill wouldn’t necessarily force people to do the right thing simply because the fear of being caught with drugs was gone.
“This is a moral issue. How can you be with someone who’s doing drugs?” Hanley said. “There is no law we can pass to make people do the right thing.”
The bill also envisioned making a prescription drug available — namely, Narcan — which when inhaled helps postpone an overdose until paramedics arrive. That part of the bill was viewed favorably by the committee.
“The Narcan piece I think is workable. We’ve used it in Maine for years,” said Rep. Michael Clarke, D-Bath, a paramedic.
On the sexual abuse bill, backers said it can take many years for a victim to speak up about sexual abuse and six years just wasn’t long enough.
For adults, there is a six-year statute of limitations on crimes of sexual abuse by someone in authority.
“My clients have to live with their abuse their whole lives. Their abusers have to live with it for just six years,” said Jennifer Lunden, a substance abuse and drug counselor from Portland.
John Pelletier, chairman of the Legislature’s Maine Criminal Law Advisory Commission, spoke in opposition to the bill.
Pelletier said the current statute is on par with other crimes of the same class. He also said that lengthening the statute could do more harm than good.
“Statutes of limitations serve a function. The function they serve is in large part a protection against errors in the criminal justice system,” said Pelletier. “When cases get old, they’re hard to prosecute and they’re hard to defend. As time passes, the quality of the evidence diminishes.”
No action was taken on the statute of limitations bill. A work session for it is scheduled for Wednesday.