Jim Carroll, President Donald Trump’s drug czar, visited Brewer for a round table with local law enforcement in October 2020 in the light of Maine’s opioid epidemic worsening during the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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Meagan Sway is the policy director at the ACLU of Maine.

Punitive drug laws don’t work.

Maine is seeing epidemic levels of pain, suffering and death from our state’s drug policies that criminalize and stigmatize Mainers with substance use disorder. People are dying and families are suffering because our current approach is built on punishment, not recovery.

In Maine, we have come to a real turning point, a clear recognition of the harm that 50 years of punishment for substance use has wrought.

In April, the ACLU of Maine conducted a statewide poll of Maine voters. There is broad and strong support across the state for changing our drug laws to focus on treatment. Simply put: most Mainers agree it’s time for a new, science-based approach toward substance use.

Sixty percent of Maine voters support removing criminal penalties for minor drug possession and offering people substance use treatment, if appropriate.

Voters agree that the war on drugs has failed, and there is strong support for reform from every part of the state and across the political spectrum. The majority of respondents who self-identify as Democrats (75 percent) and independent voters (57 percent) support a policy shift away from incarceration and toward public health measures. And those who identify as Republicans are split almost equally — 44 percent support and 43 oppose.

Mainers agree that locking people up for drug possession has not worked, and they are eager for public health-informed policies.

The good news is that the Legislature is currently considering a bill that would begin to give Mainers the drug policies they want and deserve. LD 967 would remove criminal penalties for minor drug possession. The bill would give people the option of paying a fine or taking a health assessment, with the potential for treatment, instead of facing criminal charges if they are found with a small amount of drugs.

The recovery community, harm reduction community, addiction medicine physicians and the medical community, and civil rights organizations like the ACLU of Maine, all support this policy. And now, as we have seen from polling results, a significant majority of Maine voters agree.

Voters want change and they believe this evidence-based, public health-informed policy is the best approach. LD 967 is that approach.

More than 500 people died last year from overdose deaths in Maine. It was our deadliest year for overdose deaths, and this year is on track to beat that record.

Many more have been burdened with a criminal record that will follow them for the rest of their lives.

We need to change our drug laws if we want to save lives. What we’ve been doing for decades has not worked.

Arrest and incarceration haven’t worked. People are still using drugs, they are still dying preventable deaths. Incarceration and lifelong criminal records have only created barriers to our fellow Mainers’ well-being and recovery.

There is no sound empirical basis for the idea that the threat of criminal punishment will motivate a person to enter treatment. As the Maine Drug Policy Lab’s director, Winifred Tate, testified, studies have found little evidence that mandatory or coercive treatment is effective, and in fact, that it can be harmful.

Jail and prisons are not equipped or the most effective places to provide treatment and recovery support. It is much more effective to provide these services in community settings. The recovery community talks about the four pillars of recovery: health, home, purpose and community. Jail and prisons, even when they do provide medication-assisted treatment, only serve as barriers to recovery.

At the end of the day, we all want the same thing: we want communities where people are thriving and able to flourish.

Our failed drug policies don’t work. People who have substance use disorder need help, access to treatment and medical care, and the ability to meet their basic needs. But people need hope, purpose, community, compassion and grace, as well.

It’s time our drug laws catch up with the tragedy facing our communities and treat substance use disorder like voters recognize it should be: a public health challenge that is best met with resources and compassion, not punishment and stigmatization.