AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature on Tuesday attached an amendment to leadership’s heavily debated anti-drug bill before unanimously enacting the bill and pushing it to Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s desk.
Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, said LePage signed the bill into law at about 2 p.m. Tuesday with several lawmakers present.
“I had expressed concerns about funding sources and the grant-making authority, but I thank legislative leadership for their willingness to broker changes that both the administration and the Legislature could support,” LePage said in a written statement. “To be clear, this bill is just the first step in a process that needs a much more comprehensive approach.”
LD 1537, sponsored by Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau of Winterport, would pay to hire 10 new investigators for the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency and funnel additional funding to treatment, recovery and education services for addicts. It also includes funding for a detoxification clinic that includes at least 10 beds in the northern or eastern region of Maine. A previous version of the bill called for that center to be in Bangor, but that language was amended out during the committee process.
The majority of lawmakers — if not all of them — showed support for the measure, which resulted from a bipartisan deal struck in December between Democrats and Senate Republicans.
Various funding sources have been discussed to fund the $3.7 million bill, with the focus recently on money from a $21.5 million settlement last year between Standard and Poor’s, a Wall Street ratings agency. However, a Republican-led amendment approved Tuesday switched the funding source to the Medical Use of Marijuana Fund, which is supported by fees paid by medical marijuana providers and dispensaries and was established to support the state’s administration of the program. The amendment also gave the Maine Department of Public Safety — instead of the attorney general — the authority to administer anti-drug grants to local law enforcement agencies and county jails.
Becky DeKeuster, founder of a Maine medical marijuana dispensary called the Wellness Connection, said the medical marijuana community supports the use of the marijuana fund to help fight drug addiction.
“We have known these fees were building, and for whatever reason they have not been depleted,” DeKeuster said. “We certainly thought that this is an important and extremely valuable way to make a difference.”
Paul McCarrier, who represents medical marijuana caregivers, agreed. He said the medical marijuana community has been discussing a good use for the money for more than a year, including offering some of it to help fund the state’s nursing homes.
“Hopefully this will drastically knock down the number of people who are addicted to drugs in this state,” he said.
Not everyone in the medical marijuana community has been included in the conversation, according to Catherine Lewis, board chairwoman and director of education for a trade organization called the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine. She said some on her board do not support the use of the medical marijuana fund for certain kinds of opiate addiction treatments because they “perpetuate the problem.”
“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of negotiations going on right now that isn’t including the trade association,” Lewis said. “Right now, we’re just trying to get all the details. We’re trying to figure out how this is going to affect patients and caregivers.”
There was some talk at the State House that, despite widespread support for the bill, it was too rushed — particularly the funding amendment.
Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, who chairs the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, voted in favor of the amendment Tuesday but voiced concern that funding change has not been properly vetted.
“My frustration is simply that in the rush to get something passed that this change came very suddenly,” Brakey said. “As the chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, I was not given an opportunity to contact folks and get their input.”
Members of the House of Representatives said that if ever a bill should be rushed to address a public health emergency, this one is it. Many said it was an early step in a range of solutions that will be explored this year to fight drug addiction in Maine.
“I’m glad we took up this bill right away,” Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, who co-chairs the Health and Human Services Committee, said. “I think it shows that we’re serious about tackling the serious problems facing this state.”
Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, who serves on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said she was proud of lawmakers from both parties for putting politics aside.
“This plan addresses both the supply and demand side of our drug problem and will result in more treatment options for Mainers struggling to escape the grip of substance abuse disorder,” Haskell said in a written statement.
Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said he hopes the legislation makes a marked difference.
“This sends a clear message to those who want to sell drugs here in Maine: We’re not going to tolerate that kind of activity,” Thibodeau said. “We are going to make sure our children have a safe place to grow up.”