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Critics Question Maine Gov's 'War on Drugs' Strategy
03/17/2014   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Gov. Paul LePage's bill to boost drug enforcement and prosecution efforts in Maine was supposed to signal a renewed offensive in the state's war on drugs. But instead, some of those testifying on the bill say the addition of more drug enforcement agents, judges and prosecutors ignores other key factors that drive the state's drug abuse problem. Critics also say the bill offers no new funding for medical treatment for drug dependent offenders, or for indigent clients to mount a realistic defense. A.J. Higgins has more.

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Gov. Paul LePage says the state will not turn the corner on decreasing opiate addiction until Maine makes a more serious effort at enforcing existing drug laws on the books. That's where his bill to add 14 new state drug enforcement agents, four district court judges and a four special state prosecutors is supposed to make a difference.

John Pelletier is the executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services. He says the $2 million a year LePage is proposing for drug enforcement is discouraging to Maine lawyers representing indigent drug offenders because they have not received a raise since 1999.

"I think that the lawyers who represent indigent clients find themselves frustrated at increasing emphasis on law enforcement, and increasing resources for law enforcement without taking account of the defense side," Pelletier says.

Pelletier told members of the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee that increasing resources for prosecution will increase the drug caseloads for defense attorneys. Pelletier said last year the state spent $640,000 paying lawyers for drug cases and $40,000 for private investigators and expert witnesses.

Pelletier says that while the proposed legislation is aimed at drug dealers who are financing heroin and methamphetamine sales in the state, added enforcement could also have consequences for small-time offenders - some of whom may be selling their prescriptions to pay their heat bills.

The emphasis on enforcement without additional money for legal representation comes at a time when Pelletier says some Maine attorneys are already declining court appointments because they can't afford to take those cases on.

"It is a concern, but our agency is the agency charged with providing representation to indigent defendants, and we'll endeavor to do that," Pelletier says.

Throughout the hearing on LD 1811, several speakers also highlighted the need to balance new enforcement with drug treatment programs and additional funding for the state's corrections system. State Public Safety Commission John Morris says all are necessary to defer drug abuse.

But as one of the state's chief law enforcement officers, he's convinced that putting drug pushers out of business is the top priority. "We must hunt down dealers and get them off the streets," Morris said. "We must protect our citizens from drug-related crimes and violence. We must save our babies from lifelong suffering."

Roy McKinney, the director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Administration, said his agency struggles to address drug trafficking with an inadequate number of investigators. Mobile methamphetamine labs are the new front in Maine's drug war - and McKinney says the labs are gaining ground.

"After averaging less than a half-dozen incidents per year for several years, methamphetamine lab incidents have risen from six in 2011, to 14 in 2012, 20 in 2013, and may double that this year," McKinney said.

Critics say arresting more drug offenders and locking them up is one reason the 40-year-old War on Drugs has failed. Oami Amarasingham of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine says drug treatment also has to be a priority.

"If you lock one dealer up, another dealer is going to pop up in that person's place," she said. "And the reason for that is that addiction remains, and the way to get rid of demand is to treat addiction."

Lawmakers are expected to further review the drug enforcement bill later this week.


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