AUGUSTA, Maine — Whether possession of certain illegal drugs should result in a lifetime criminal record is under consideration by lawmakers in Augusta who are grappling with competing proposals to strengthen and weaken drug laws.
At the core of the debate are the lasting legal effects of a felony drug conviction and whether those ramifications are fair for people whose mistakes resulted from addiction.
Republican Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta on Friday introduced LD 113, which would strike existing provisions in the law that possession of more than two grams of heroin constitutes the intent to sell. It also downgrades drug and drug paraphernalia possession crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.
A separate bill introduced Friday by Sen. Kimberley Rosen, R-Bucksport, LD 1246, which she submitted on behalf of the attorney general’s office, would work essentially in the opposite direction to Katz’s bill. It would make possession of more than a gram of fentanyl — which is similar to heroin but much more potent — legally constitute either intent to furnish or traffic the drug.
Rosen’s bill also makes the operation of a methamphetamine laboratory, or possession of meth-making materials, a felony. The bill would also lower the felony threshold for cocaine possession from 14 grams to 7 grams.
Officials from the attorney general’s office and the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency testified in favor of Rosen’s bill, particularly the provisions related to meth labs, which MDEA Director Roy McKinney and Assistant Attorney General Lisa Marchese said are typically small in scale.
“There are significant investigative and environmental costs associated with the response to and cleanup of a methamphetamine lab, yet people are operating these labs in cars, hotels, apartment buildings and their own dwellings, often putting their children at risk,” said Marchese. “This is a growing problem and the Maine Legislature must act.”
Walter McKee, an Augusta-based criminal defense attorney and member of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, opposed Rosen’s bill. He said the bill would make possession of what is essentially a single dose of fentanyl a felony.
“The simple possession of a drug in and of itself should not be a felony,” said McKee. “These people have a bad addiction. They have possession of a dangerous drug but that should not make them convicted felons.”
Courtney Fortin of Biddeford said she was convicted of felony drug possession in 2013 but is currently in recovery and participating in an addiction treatment program.
“While I soon will be finished serving my court-ordered sentence, the consequences of my felony conviction will continue to negatively impact me for the rest of my life,” she told lawmakers. “My felony conviction was for a low-level, non-violent crime stemming from my addiction. … This not only has implications for me, but also for my daughter, as it limits the resources available to both of us.”
Katz said Fortin is the kind of person his bill is designed to help.
“I’m not suggesting that we let these people off the hook,” he said. “By illegally possessing drugs they are breaking the law. On the other hand, I think we can agree that possession of drugs cannot ruin their lives forever. … We are making felons out of Mainers who are suffering from the disease of addiction. A felony is the gift that keeps on giving.”
Both bills are scheduled for Criminal Justice Committee work sessions next week.