A lantern honors someone who died from an overdose. Credit: Hannah Catlin | Aroostook Republican

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Anne Perry of Calais represents District 140 in the Maine House of Representatives. A retired family nurse practitioner, she serves on the Health and Human Services Committee.

When it comes to addressing drug use in our communities, the criminal justice system can’t “force” someone into long-term recovery. In fact, the evidence shows that arrest and jail or prison are detrimental to people’s chances of survival and recovery. Thankfully, last spring, Maine made immense progress in moving toward drug policy that is evidence-based, humane and just.

A bill I sponsored to end criminal penalties for drug possession and offer people a pathway to recovery, LD 967, passed in the Maine House of Representatives. It had overwhelming public support from medical professionals, people in recovery, their family members and in the press.

LD 967 was modeled on Oregon’s Measure 110 ballot initiative, passed in November 2020, which ended criminal penalties for drug possession and dramatically increased funding for treatment. Thanks to Measure 110, Oregonians have the option of paying a $100 fine or undergoing a health assessment if police issue a citation for drug possession. Measure 110 also invests marijuana tax revenues and the savings from the criminal justice system into treatment and other recovery services.

Early results from the law’s first year show the promise of pursuing a policy that supports people who use drugs, instead of punishing them: more money for recovery, and fewer people arrested and jailed for drug possession. These early successes should make us pay attention to Oregon as we attempt to save lives in Maine.

First, drug arrests have declined significantly since Measure 110 took effect in February. According to the most recent arrest data from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, drug arrests fell about 63 percent from February to September as compared to the same period in 2020. When drug use adversely impacts someone’s life, or when a person has substance use disorder — an illness, not a crime — the best way to address it is through public health interventions, not with criminal punishment.

Second, Measure 110 has also delivered on significant funding for recovery services and treatment infrastructure. The Oregon Legislature approved $30 million in funding this year, and $300 million has been set aside for disbursement over the next two years. With the initial $30 million in funding, 70 organizations in the majority of Oregon’s counties have already been able to add and expand services for harm reduction and recovery.

To put it simply, we need to invest in our public health infrastructure instead of threatening people who use drugs with jail time and punishment. Evidence shows that criminal punishment does not work.

I’ve been serving my community as a nurse practitioner for decades, and I have worked with people facing addiction to a variety of substances. When I work with people to quit smoking, I have multiple conversations with people before they decide to quit. I offer my patients information and various avenues for smoking cessation, including medication, and link them to support. And many of my patients don’t quit the first time they try. It takes multiple tries. My approach is based on the best public health practices available for tobacco cessation.

Nicotine is a highly addictive drug. Do we say we’re going to threaten smokers with jail time if they don’t quit? Do we think jail will convince them to try harder to quit? Of course not, and it is also not appropriate when it comes to addressing other types of drug use.

There is a growing consensus among rural states and states with large urban centers, nationally and in Maine, that it’s time for us to end policies that do not work. New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Massachusetts, Maryland, Kansas, Washington and the District of Columbia introduced similar legislation, following Oregon’s success and we can do it in Maine, too.

We should pass legislation that invests in treatment and other recovery supports to build on the successes of last spring to keep moving Maine forward. There is no time to waste, too many of our neighbors, friends and family depend on it.