Maine Legislature advances two anti-drug measures with third in limbo

The Maine Legislature looked poised on Thursday to pass measures allowing over-the-counter access to an overdose antidote and increasing penalties for drug traffickers, but another bill increasing possession penalties is in limbo.

All face further votes and they were part of a 2016 legislative agenda around Maine’s opiate crisis. Last year, Maine set a record for overdose deaths with 272, largely driven by heroin and fentanyl.

On Thursday, both chambers initially passed a bill from Assistant House Majority Leader Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, that would allow pharmacies to dispense naloxone, a drug that saves lives by blocking opioid receptors and restoring breathing after a potentially fatal overdose.

It passed 98-49 in the House and 25-8 in the Senate, with only Republicans and one unenrolled conservative opposing the bill in both chambers combined.

Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, who voted for it, called it a “pro-life bill,” according to MPBN. But House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, who has emerged as a top lieutenant of Gov. Paul LePage, opposed the bill alongside most of his caucus.

LePage hasn’t taken a position on it, but has aggressively opposed naloxone in the past, once calling it “an excuse to stay addicted.” However, in 2014, he worked with Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, to craft a compromise bill that he allowed to pass into law without a signature.

Another bill from Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Benton, which would double maximum sentences for importing heroin and other opiates and create a new aggravated trafficking crime, sailed toward passage in a final House vote on Thursday. It’s supported by the LePage administration, but opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which said penalties for traffickers are harsh as it is.

Less certain, however, is the fate of a bill from Attorney General Janet Mills and sponsored Sen. Kimberley Rosen, R-Bucksport, that aimed to fix a conflict in Maine law by increasing penalties for first-time possession of heroin and other drugs to a felony level.

It has already passed an initial vote in the Senate, but it was voted down in the House on Thursday before the chamber passed a weaker version of the bill that leaves penalties first-time heroin possession at a misdemeanor level.

The ACLU of Maine hailed that move in a statement, with Oamshri Amarasingham, a lawyer for the group, saying, “Turning more Mainers into felons didn’t stop the drug problem before, and it won’t now.”

Michael Shepherd

About Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after covering state, federal and local issues for the Kennebec Journal for three years. He's a Hallowell native who now lives in Gardiner. He graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.