AUGUSTA — A bill meant to toughen sentences for those convicted of trafficking illegal drugs or importing them into Maine was met with mixed reactions from the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on Monday.

The bill, LD 1541, offered by Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Benton, would increase the classifications of trafficking crimes as well as add a new definition for the crime of aggravated importation of illegal drugs across state lines to Maine law. The proposal also requires mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of the most serious drug-trafficking offenses and would lead to either a minimum 2-year sentence or a minimum 4-year sentence, depending on the seriousness of the crime.

“It is my belief that stiffening our current laws will help to deter those importing these drugs from entering our state,” Cyrway said. “If you do choose to cross our border and are caught, the consequences will be so significant that perhaps it will prevent others from doing the same.”

Cyrway’s bill raises the class of the crime for illegal importation of scheduled drugs from a Class C crime to a Class B crime for schedule W drugs, which includes heroin, and from Class D to Class C for schedule X, Y and Z drugs, which includes most other drugs, including amphetamines and marijuana.

The bill also increases the penalties for drug dealers who employ children to help sell and distribute drugs by increasing the crime by one class whenever such aggravating factors are involved in the crime.

“These criminals are not just one-time offenders who have made a bad decision,” said Cyrway, who has served as a Drug Awareness Resistance Education officer for 23 years and is now the statewide coordinator for that program in Maine. “They have no regard for the people they hurt and they must be stopped.”

The bill, along with another offered by Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, that aims to create a four-person task force for the Maine State Police that would focus on drug-trafficking crimes and augment the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, comes on the heels of a $4.9 million bill passed earlier this month that adds additional drug agents and increases funding for treatment and counseling in Maine.

That law, signed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage, has been called the first step by both LePage and lawmakers in tackling Maine’s growing opioid addiction crisis.

The bills offered by Cyrway and Burns Monday are part of a series of bills that are expected to come before the Legislature in the weeks ahead, aimed at doing more to stem the rising number of drug-related crimes and overdose deaths in Maine.

“Maine needs to send a clear message to criminals — we will not tolerate people violating our strict drug laws,” Hanley said. “This problem isn’t just a crime against the state — it’s a crime against flesh and blood; it’s a crime against human beings. It destroys their soul, their intellect, their will, their future. Whatever we can do as a legislative body to crush this horrible thing, we should do it.”

Roy McKinney, director of the MDEA, also testified in favor of Cyrway’s bill.

“We all know the devastating impact that heroin and other opioids are having on our communities,” McKinney said. He said MDEA investigations of heroin and other opioid drug-trafficking crimes were up 30 percent from 2014 to 2015 and that increasing penalties for drug trafficking would be another tool for enforcement agencies.

Any bill that looks to toughen Maine’s drug laws or add law enforcement capacity is likely to be viewed favorably by LePage, according to spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett. She said Monday that the governor wouldn’t commit to any bill until he reads it for himself.  

“We have to see the bill first,” she said, but added that LePage has been steadfast in his support for toughening drug laws and penalties for those who break them.

“He is very aware of the various penalties and the degrees of penalties in other states and he wants Maine to be tough,” Bennett said. “He has been very open about that, and if there is a bill that comes across his desk that is going to thwart drug dealers, make them think twice about crossing the border into our state and selling drugs, that’s something that he isn’t going to shy away from.”

But others, including John Pelletier, chairman of the Legislature’s Criminal Law Advisory Commission, said the commission, which includes defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges, has determined Maine law already includes provisions that provide strong enough penalties and plenty of options for judges and prosecutors.

Pelletier said the commission reviewed Cyrway’s bill last Friday, “and there was no one in the room — defense lawyer, prosecutor or judge — that ever encountered a case where someone was charged with importation of drugs and the amount of penalty available for the charge struck the prosecutor or judge as inadequate.”

Also testifying against the bill on Monday was former state Sen. David Miramant, a Camden Democrat.  

Miramant said long minimum mandatory sentences for drug crimes don’t solve the problem.

“They clog the courts and fill our jails but drugs are more available and cheaper than they were before the war on drugs began,” Miramant said. “Adding more minimums goes completely against the best wisdom of current thinking. The old model of making penalties harsher and longer every time an issue heats up is a failure.”

Miramant said removing flexibility from sentences “ties the hands of prosecutors who can identify a person who has a great chance to turn their life around and instead fills the jails with them.”

Both bills will be the subject of committee work sessions in the days ahead where lawmakers may change the content before voting on a recommendation for the full Legislature to consider.

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