This Feb. 19, 2013, file photo shows OxyContin pills arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt. Credit: Toby Talbot / AP

Maine is considering a new approach to curb the opioid epidemic’s rising death toll: drug decriminalization.

That makes Maine the latest state to consider decriminalization of even hard drugs as a consensus grows about the failure of the decades-old war on drugs.

Under the legislation — LD 967, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Anne Perry of Calais — people who possess a small amount of drugs such as cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine would only get a fine and could be referred to an addiction recovery program. The bill does not specify what amounts of these drugs would be subject to reduced penalties, but that is expected to be clarified in future discussion, the Sun Journal reported.

Oregon, which decriminalized drug possession in February, allows a person to have less than 2 grams of cocaine and methamphetamine, less than 1 gram of heroin and less than 40 pills of oxycodone. Elsewhere, Massachusetts, Vermont and Washington state are considering decriminalizing drug possession as a community-first approach to remedying the harms of drug use.

Illegal drug sales would remain illegal under the Maine bill.

Perry called the bill a first step toward extending a lifeline to people with substance use disorder.

“Exposure to treatment eventually gets them to treatment, but if you don’t expose them to that, they don’t know where to go,” Perry told the Sun Journal.

The Maine judicial branch found that people who go through the state’s drug court program — about 200 a year — are less likely than those outside of the program to be arrested within a year of their graduation.

After 2020 recorded a record number of deadly overdoses, ACLU of Maine policy director Meagan Sway told the Sun Journal that the state cannot afford to wait to decriminalize drug use.

However, law enforcement officials remain torn on the issue. While some agree that decriminalization will directly benefit community members, Scarborough Police Chief Robbie Moulton told the Sun Journal he worries that it may have unintended consequences, such as making it harder to enforce trafficking laws.

Leela Stockley

Leela Stockley is an alumna of the University of Maine. She was raised in northern Maine, and loves her cat Wesley and staying active in the Maine outdoors.