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Last year, 502 Mainers died from drug overdoses, the most on record. Nearly half of all drug-related arrests in 2018 were for possessing small amounts of drugs. County jails are crowded with people who are awaiting court hearings, many of them arrested for drug possession who then languish in jail, often without access to treatment and other needed services.
Clearly, state and federal efforts to lessen substance use by treating drug possession as a crime have failed.
Decriminalization, which Maine lawmakers are considering this year, offers a different way forward.
LD 967 would 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 face 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.
Possessing and selling larger quantities of these drugs would remain crimes.
This approach has many benefits. It 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.
LD 967, which is supported by the Maine Medical Association, would also direct people who want to end or reduce their drug use to treatment programs, which are only sometimes available in jail.
It can also save taxpayers money by reducing jail spending and investing in treatment reduces crime.
There is proof that it can work. Faced with high rates of addiction, crime and incarceration, Portugal decriminalized possession of all drugs in 2001.
Portugal's results are instructive as Maine lawmakers consider a similar, but more modest approach. From 2001 to 2015, overdose deaths decreased by 80 percent in Portugal. From 1998 to 2011, the number of individuals in treatment increased by over 60 percent.
Decriminalization did not increase drug consumption; Portugal's prevalence of drug use is now among the lowest in the European Union.
Last year, voters in Oregon approved a measure similar to LD 967. It took effect in February.
Maine can learn from and build upon what has happened in Portugal and Oregon, Whitney Parrish, advocacy and communications director for the Health Equity Alliance, told lawmakers.
"Things are not getting better here using our current approach either," Parrish testified last week in support of LD 967. "I won't attempt to hide the fact that we absolutely have to continue rebuilding our public health and support infrastructure simultaneously. Through the great work of this Legislature, we are doing exactly that right now. If our criminal code does not keep up, we will lose an immense opportunity to not only make lives better, but to better communities as well."
We share some of the concerns raised by law enforcement and prosecutors, in opposition to this legislation, 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.
LD 967 offers a different, and likely more effective, means of reducing the harmful — and too often deadly — impacts of substance use disorder in Maine. Decriminalizing possession of some drugs can go hand-in-hand with the many efforts in Maine to increase treatment options and to make them more available to those who want them.