Pubdate: Thu, 17 Mar 2011
Source: Bangor Daily News (ME)
Copyright: 2011 Bangor Daily News Inc.
Author: Jeff Tuttle, BDN Staff


AUGUSTA, Maine -- Maine would have some of the nation's most relaxed
laws when it comes to marijuana possession if a Portland lawmaker's
efforts gain any traction in Augusta.

Rep. Ben Chipman, I-Portland, on Thursday introduced LD 754, which
would decriminalize possession of up to five ounces of marijuana, and
LD 750, which would allow people to have up to six marijuana plants
without facing criminal penalties.

"It is my fundamental belief that people who use marijuana for
personal use on a recreational basis are not criminals," Chipman told
members of the Legislature's Criminal Justice Committee.

Chipman's bills do not legalize marijuana. Both possession and
cultivation of the drug still would be against the law, but minor
offenses would be treated as civil infractions similar to traffic
violations. Those in violation could be fined -- but not arrested or
jailed -- and they would have no criminal record.

Currently in Maine, possession of less than 2.5 ounces of marijuana is
a civil violation, the maximum punishment for which is a $1,000 fine.
Under Chipman's bill, the fine would be lowered to a maximum of $250
and would apply to amounts of up to 5 ounces. The bill also would
remove criminal penalties currently in place for amounts between 2.5
ounces and 5 ounces.

Supporters of Chipman's bills urged lawmakers to rethink pouring more
resources into what they believe has been a failed war on drugs.

"Let public guardians get back to protecting us all from violence at
the hands of criminals and protecting our property from car thieves,
burglars and con artists," said Caroline Evans of Law Enforcement
Against Prohibition, a Massachusetts-based group of current and former
members of law enforcement who favor regulation -- not prohibition -- of
drug use. "We will all be much better off."

Marijuana is already legal for medical use in 14 states -- including
Maine -- and the District of Columbia. Thirteen states -- also including
Maine -- have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

No state, however, has legalized the drug.

But Maine lawmakers are likely to be among those who consider such a
plan this year. Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, on Thursday expressed
support for Chipman's bills, but also informed the committee that she
will introduce a sweeping bill to legalize and tax marijuana in Maine.

Lawmakers in Rhode Island and in Washington state are considering
similar legalization efforts. Last year in California, voters rejected
Proposition 19, the ballot initiative that would have legalized
marijuana in that state.

Opponents of efforts to relax marijuana laws traditionally draw
opposition from law enforcement, and Chipman's efforts were no exceptions.

The bills were opposed by the Maine Prosecutors Association, which
described Maine's current law as one of the nation's most progressive.
Prosecutors also say that they are more heavily focused on treatment
and rehabilitation than harsh penalties.

Also opposing them was Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug
Enforcement Agency. McKinney said one bill would enable youths to grow
enough marijuana for significant street sales with only the threat of
a misdemeanor.

Also on Thursday, the committee considered LD 44 and LD 773. LD 44
would increase penalties for possession of cocaine. LD 773 would
increase penalties for trafficking of methamphetamine and amphetamine

Rep. Gary E. Plummer, R-Windham, introduced LD 44, which would make
the possession of any amount of cocaine or crack cocaine a felony.
Currently, possession of smaller amounts of the drug is a

"I think this is the time. I think the use of cocaine has reached the
point when it is time to enhance the penalty," Plummer said in
introducing the bill. "It goes way beyond a recreational drug."

Portland Police Chief James Craig was the first to testify in favor of
Plummer's bill, saying it would help stem the crime associated with
cocaine and give prosecutors more leverage in ferreting out drug
dealers from out-of-state. Craig had a warning for lawmakers on the

"Please look at me as your future," said Craig, who referenced his
many years combating drugs and drug violence as a member of the Los
Angeles Police Department. "It would probably surprise you how similar
Portland is today to Los Angeles was 25 years ago."

Those opposed to increasing penalties for possession of cocaine or
methamphetamine said it only will serve to fill up Maine prisons.
Alysia Melnick, the public policy counsel for the Maine Civil
Liberties Union, said treatment is seven times more cost effective
than incarceration.

"The lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key approach isn't working," said
Melnick said in a news release. "Prison is expensive and does not
treat the root causes of drug abuse and addiction." 
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