Paper lanterns adorned with messages memorialize those killed by overdoses at a vigil in Portland on Thursday night. Last year, 376 Mainers died of drug overdoses. That's a 39 percent increase over 2015 when 272 people died, according to the Maine attorney general’s office. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Maine voters are ready to change punitive state drug laws and embrace a more progressive, health care-based approach to fighting addiction, according to new research conducted by a pair of University of Maine professors.

While voters are ready to restructure Maines’ drug laws, policymakers may be more resistant to widespread change, according to researchers Robert Glover, a University of Maine associate professor of political science, and Karyn Sporer, University of Maine associate professor of sociology.

The shift in public opinion, however, could be what advocates need to push for change, they said. 

The researchers polled 417 Maine registered voters in the summer of 2021, and supplemented the polling with interviews — conducted in 2020 — with 30 policymakers, treatment providers and affected community members, according to a report on the research released on Tuesday. 

Some 74 percent of participants support decriminalizing non-violent, low-level drug offenses, such as possession of illicit drugs for personal use, according to the report. 

A bill that would make the possession of drugs for personal use a civil penalty rather than a crime — LD 967 — was proposed to the Legislature last year, but the legislation died in July 2021. Glover and Sporer said their research suggests most Mainers are in favor of that change even though it failed to pass the Legislature. 

Most Mainers polled also support policies that would divert people with substance use disorder out of the criminal justice system and into community-based programs and recovery and detox services. This would cause the state to approach the opioid epidemic as a public health issue rather than a criminal justice issue, Sporer said. 

While 76 percent of Mainers said they support the distribution of naloxone, an overdose reversal medication, voters were divided on whether they favored establishing sites where people could use drugs in a safer environment, with trained support staff to intervene in the event of complications or overdose. Some 48 percent of respondents were opposed to safer use sites, according to the report. 

Glover said people may see harm reduction efforts like needle exchanges and safe use sites as “giving a pass” to people who use drugs, which then “enables or gives moral permission to that sort of behavior.”  

While the lower approval rate suggests more Mainers are opposed to safe use sites, Glover and Sporer said that result shows a change in public opinion from years ago when voters would likely have been universally opposed to the idea. 

Glover and Sporer credited the widespread change in public opinion to three things: Mainers are listening to more perspectives and researching; more Mainers have personal connection to someone with substance use disorder; and voters are acknowledging there are multiple pathways to recovering from substance use disorder. 

“People are seeing, observing and acknowledging that there’s a real problem in their community and it’s impacting their attitudes toward harm reduction,” Sporer said. “Folks realize this is a complex problem that requires a complex solution. There is no one-size-fits-all solution like putting someone in jail and maybe they’ll learn their lesson.” 

While Maine voters widely believe it’s time to change the way the state approaches substance use, Glover said he’s unsure whether policymakers would be so quick to act. 

“Policymakers seem to think there are certain measures that are such sweeping reforms that it would be such a shift for Maine and the population isn’t there yet,” Glover said. “This [research] suggests that is not true. This suggests there’s a real hunger for pretty sweeping reforms in ways that even surprised us.” 

These results show Mainers’ feelings about how the state should address the continuing opioid epidemic are at odds with punitive and widely unsuccessful policies the state has traditionally used to fight the use, possession and sale of illicit drugs, according to the report. 

Glover said he and Sporer could share results with the Legislature’s criminal justice committee, but how they approach lawmakers could depend on the results of the November election. 

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Kathleen O'Brien

Kathleen O'Brien is a reporter covering the Bangor area. Born and raised in Portland, she joined the Bangor Daily News in 2022 after working as a Bath-area reporter at The Times Record. She graduated from...