Maine lawmakers will vote this week on a bill that would make the possession of small amounts of drugs including heroin a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. Backers of the proposal say they need these tough penalties to give prosecutors and judges enough clout to force addicts to get treatment through the drug court program.

Their intentions are good, but the logic is faulty. The 40-year war on drugs has filled prisons and branded people with addictive disorders as felons, interfering with their ability to get jobs and rebuild their lives. That has not deterred new generations from taking drugs, getting hooked and dying from overdoses. It’s time to try something other than tougher sentences.

Keeping a first possession offense a misdemeanor is not a sign that heroin, fentanyl and the others are not dangerous drugs — they are — but criminal penalties are no substitute for medical treatment when people are affected by what looks more like an epidemic than a crime. Keeping first-offense possession a misdemeanor, which carries a potential sentence of no more than 364 days in jail, would promote recovery more than upping the penalty.

Drug court is a resource-intensive process in which some addicts agree to plead guilty and receive treatment under the supervision of a judge, prosecutor, probation officer and case manager. If they are successful, they graduate without a conviction on their record. If they are not, they are sentenced to prison or jail.

It’s a successful program, but in her recent address to the Legislature, Chief Justice Leigh Saufley bluntly said that the “drug courts can’t do it all.”

There are drug courts in only five Maine counties, so someone facing a felony drug possession charge in the other 11 would be out of luck. There were more than 1,000 convictions for opiates and other narcotics (excluding marijuana) in 2014, but fewer than 200 people enrolled in drug courts. In 2015, 272 people died of a drug overdose, while only 49 graduated from a drug court.

Even with a felony conviction hanging over an offender’s head, drug court can’t get the desired result much of the time. No one becomes a drug addict without making a series of irrational, self-destructive decisions. A person who is addicted to drugs risks his life every day. It’s unrealistic to expect someone like that to suddenly smarten up and successfully complete treatment just because he thinks he might go to jail.

Once in jail there are virtually no drug treatment programs, leaving addicted people as bad off when they get out as they were when they went in.

Possession of heroin had been a felony for 40 years in Maine before a first offense was downgraded to a misdemeanor last year, when one of the bills Gov. Paul LePage tried and failed to pocket veto became law without his signature. The felony charge did not prevent the current wave of heroin use and overdose deaths, and there is no reason to believe that restoring it would reverse that trend.

The state should continue developing a multi-pronged approach in which drug trafficking is aggressively prosecuted and drug addiction is treated for what it is – a behavioral disorder that often co-occurs with an underlying mental health condition.

The last 40 years have shown that punishment is not an effective deterrent to drug use. This is not a war — it’s an epidemic, and lawmakers should treat it that way.


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