This May 8, 2019, photo shows hypodermic needles, needle caps, cotton swabs and other drug paraphernalia near Albuquerque, N.M. Those who work at syringe service programs in the state say a new law that decriminalizes possession of hypodermic needles will reduce the threat of penalties for drug users and help them combat the state's opioid crisis. Credit: Jim Thompson / The Albuquerque Journal via AP

This week marks the first that Mainers battling the opioid crisis won’t face the threat of criminal charges for possessing hypodermic needles.

Passed in July, LD 994 eliminates criminal penalties for possession of hypodermic needles and other drug paraphernalia, something that harm reduction advocates say makes them more effective at their work helping those in crisis.

Chasity Tuell, a program director with the syringe service program Maine Access Points, called the law an “essential and necessary step for the health and wellness of people who use drugs in Maine.”

“Our communities across Maine will have increased access to harm reduction services without fearing criminalization for receiving this care, reducing the risk of illness and saving lives,” Tuell said.

Safe injection sites, syringe service programs and other harm reduction advocates have pushed the state to decriminalize the possession of needles used for drugs. This year, their argument finally swayed state officials and drug enforcement agencies, who supported the passage of LD 994, An Act To Promote Public Health by Eliminating Criminal Penalties for Possession of Hypodermic Apparatuses.

The opioid crisis has worsened in recent years with growing income inequality and the housing crisis, conditions further exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. Nearly 2,700 Mainers died of opioid-related causes from 2010 to 2019, and the state reported another 504 deaths in 2020.

Officials from Maine’s Drug Enforcement Agency, Maine’s Department of Public Safety and the Attorney General’s office testified in support of the bill, along with dozens of harm reduction advocates who work in certified programs and others who work with people struggling with homelessness.

Previously, possession of hypodermic apparatuses carried a penalty of up to 364 days in jail and a $2,000 fine for possessing 11 syringes or more. For the state’s certified syringe service programs, the law removes the threat of criminal penalty for furnishing or trafficking by swapping out safe syringes.

Roy McKinney, the director of Maine’s Drug Enforcement Agency, testified before the Legislature in April that decriminalizing the possession of needles is a point in the state’s Opioid Response Strategic Action Plan, and “seeks to promote a comprehensive system of care and referrals among health care and harm reduction services that the Department supports.”

The push to decriminalize drug paraphernalia was part of a more comprehensive package to reform drug sentencing laws discussed in 2020. Elements of that proposal were splintered off in LD 994, which McKinney supported.

Rep. Genevieve McDonald of Stonington, who sponsored the bill, added in her testimony that access to clean needles helps reduce the spread of infections and diseases like HIV and hepatitis, which in turn reduces the costs of hospitalizations and other strains on the state’s health care system.