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Maine Should Decriminalize Drugs, Report From ACLU Says

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“A majority of people in Maine support removing criminal penalties for those who use drugs. This is a move that Maine is ready for.”

By Evan Popp, Maine Beacon

Drug decriminalization would lead to far better health outcomes for people with substance use disorder while also saving Maine millions currently spent on punishment and incarceration rather than helping those who use drugs get treatment, a report released Monday found.

The study was produced by the ACLU of Maine and the Maine Center for Economic Policy (MECEP). Based on conversations with more than 150 people—including those who have been arrested for drug crimes as well as treatment professionals, harm reduction workers, prosecutors and defense attorneys — along with data from public records requests and academic research, the report makes the case for decriminalizing the use and possession of drugs in Maine.

The state’s current system, which harshly criminalizes the possession of even small amounts of illegal substances, has amassed a staggering social and economic toll, the authors of the report argue, and must change if the state is to truly address an overdose epidemic that claimed the lives of nearly two Mainers a day in 2021.

The study found that criminalization makes drug use more dangerous and creates conditions that mean those with substance use disorder—a disease—are less able to attain treatment.

“The isolation and disconnection of prison or jail time can interrupt treatment and lead to an increased likelihood of overdose after release,” the authors of the report write. “And the criminal records that people get from drug charges means they are forever branded as criminals, making employment, housing and other necessary processes very difficult to get and keep. People who use drugs face stigma because of all this criminal punishment.”

Those in the state’s recovery community have repeatedly made similar arguments. The report quoted the testimony of Chantel St. Laurent of Lewiston, who told lawmakers on Maine’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee in 2021 that imprisonment is often a barrier to recovery.

“I cannot tell you how frustrating it is to watch people be incarcerated for their substance use disorder,” St. Laurent said. “I see people get their foot in the door at treatment, just to be pulled out by the justice system.”

Along with its harmful impact on access to treatment, the report also outlined how the current system disproportionately punishes certain people. The authors stated that while white and Black people use drugs at similar rates, Black Mainers are more than 3.5 times as likely to be arrested for drug possession as white people in the state who use substances.

Along with being ineffective and discriminatory, the current system is also expensive, the study found. In 2019 alone, about one in eleven arrests made by Maine law enforcement were for drug-related crimes, with state and local governments spending $111 million yearly to criminalize drug use. In addition, impacted individuals themselves pay another $33 million to cover the cost of criminalization and incarceration.

When drug arrests lead to incarceration, the report authors stated that the price of a year in state prison is more than twice the cost of providing housing, weekly counseling and medication-assisted treatment for a year to those who use substances.

The emphasis in Maine on incarceration and punishment rather than treatment and social support is the result of long-standing policy decisions, the report found. For example, between 2014 and 2019, funding of substance use treatment through MaineCare increased 2 percent. But during that same time period, the authors identified a 13 percent rise in allocations for state and local corrections and a 14 percent increase in money for policing.

“Year over year, Maine has prioritized incarcerating and criminalizing people who use drugs over making treatment for drug use more available,” said James Myall, a co-author of the report and economic policy analyst at MECEP. “Not only is this approach ineffective, but it’s extremely costly.”

This points to the need for a better approach, the authors write. Along with decriminalizing drug use and possession, the report calls for investing the money saved by moving away from incarceration in social supports that address the underlying reasons people use substances. Such programs include treatment services and recovery-based housing, mental health counseling and community connection initiatives.

“There is a clear consensus for a public health approach to address the needs of people with substance use disorder. It is time to ensure our policies center and support that approach,” said lead report author Winifred Tate, an associate professor of anthropology and the director of the Maine Drug Policy Lab at Colby College. “In order to do so, we must decriminalize the possession and use of drugs in our state and invest in our communities.”

Given that Maine has a historic budget surplus of about $1.2 billion, now is the time to make such investments, the authors argued. During a press conference Monday outlining the report, Tate said using some of the surplus to create more treatment options and community networks are important to addressing the overdose crisis. She added that advocates have also repeatedly emphasized the need for supportive and affordable housing as a crucial step toward keeping those in recovery and active use safe and able to access services. Maine is currently facing an affordable housing crisis, with myriad bills introduced this legislative session on the issue.

There is strong evidence to support an alternative approach centered around decriminalization and community investment, ACLU policy director Meagan Sway added during the press conference. She pointed to the example of Portugal, which decriminalized drugs in 2001 and instead spent money on creating health programs for those who use substances. By 2008, about 75 percent of people using opioids in the country were opting into treatment, Sway said.

In addition to Portugal, the momentum behind decriminalizing drugs has spread to some states in the U.S., with Sway citing the decision by Oregon voters in 2020 to approve a ballot measure doing so.

The decriminalization movement is also building power in Maine. In 2021, a grassroots campaign led by the recovery community and backed by public health professionals and advocacy groups succeeded in pushing LD 967, a drug decriminalization bill, through the Maine House. Although the measure was ultimately voted down in the Senate and was opposed by Gov. Janet Mills (D), advocates saw the successful House vote as a significant step forward in the fight to move Maine away from failed “War on Drugs” policies.

“A majority of people in Maine support removing criminal penalties for those who use drugs,” Sway said. “This is a move that Maine is ready for, and as the report shows, it is a necessary move to end the harms of criminalization.”

This story was first published by Maine Beacon.

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