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Last year, 636 Mainers died from drug overdoses. This was yet another grim annual record.
According to a new report, state and local governments spend more than $100 million a year to prosecute and incarcerate those who traffic and use drugs.
This math highlights the failure of our current approach to drug use and possession.
“In addition to the very real toll that the war on drugs inflicts on Mainers’ physical and mental wellbeing, collectively we pay millions of dollars each year in financial costs,” one of the report’s authors, James Myall, economic policy analyst at the Maine Center for Economic Policy, said in a press release. “Year over year, Maine has prioritized incarcerating and criminalizing people who use drugs over making treatment for drug use more available. Not only is this approach ineffective, but it’s extremely costly.”
According to the report by MECEP and the ACLU of Maine, state and local governments spend $111 million a year – more than $8,000, on average, per drug arrest – on surveillance, arrests, prosecution and incarceration related to drug crimes. Those costs are rising and don’t count the economic consequences for those who are arrested, charged and incarcerated.
This all points to the fact that state and federal efforts to lessen substance use by treating drug possession as a crime aren’t working.
As we – and others – have said many times before, access to treatment for substance use disorder must be increased. That includes more treatment options and working to ensure that they are accessible – in terms of cost, location and time – to the people who need them.
Beyond this, lawmakers should again consider decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of some drugs. Nearly three-quarters of drug arrests in 2019 were for possession, according to the ACLU-MECEP report.
A bill last year, LD 967, sought to eliminate criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of scheduled drugs like heroin, oxycodone and cocaine. Instead, someone found to be in possession of small quantities of these drugs — which are presumed to be for their personal use — would have faced a $100 civil fine, which would be waived if the person is referred for a health assessment for substance use disorder with the possibility of being referred to evidence-based treatment. Drug trafficking would have remained a crime, as it should.
An amended version of the bill initially passed the Maine House and Senate, but was rejected by the Senate in a later vote. It faced strong opposition from law enforcement, the Mills administration and Attorney General Aaron Frey. It was supported by the Maine Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics Maine Chapter, Health Equity Alliance and other social service groups.
It followed a model used in Oregon, the first state to decriminalize small amounts of some drugs, and Portugal. Faced with high rates of addiction, crime and incarceration, Portugal decriminalized possession of all drugs in 2001. Since then, overdose deaths decreased substantially and treatment increased. Portugal’s prevalence of drug use has been among the lowest in the European Union.
This approach could help end the cycle of sending Mainers with substance use disorder to jail, where they may be held for months before a court date. This is disruptive to their families, their work and their treatment if they are in a program. Convictions for drug offenses can also have life-long impacts, often making it hard for people in recovery to find jobs and housing.
We share some of the concerns raised by law enforcement and prosecutors, in opposition to the decriminalization legislation, including that more and better treatment options need to be more readily available in all parts of Maine. But, we can’t continue to wait for these services while hundreds of Mainers die and others have their lives derailed by substance use disorder each year, while taxpayers are spending more than $100 million a year on an endless cycle.