I have twice been arrested on drug-related charges. The first time, I was 17 and charged as an adult; I worked out a deal with the prosecution to be placed on probation and stay out of trouble for a year, in exchange for not having a finding of guilt on my record.

The second time was several years later, in 2014, when I was charged with a major drug offense that carried a lengthy minimum sentence. I pled no contest and, due to several factors, I was referred to the Veterans Affairs health care system for treatment in lieu of incarceration. Again, my case was continued with no guilty finding, in exchange for me agreeing to regular counseling and reports back to the court regarding my progress.

As a result, today I do not have a felony record and I have moved on in my life.

It is all too conceivable that my story could have gone another way. When I was arrested in 2014, I was able to afford a well-known private defense attorney with the time and resources to dedicate to my case. My attorney knew enough about me to point to my record of military service, and my potential for rehabilitation, as reasons I shouldn’t go to jail. Plenty of people are not so lucky; if they can’t afford a private lawyer, they are assigned one who may or may not be able to mount a robust defense.

If I had been sentenced to jail, it would have been devastating to me and to my family. My wife would have lost our home, and no doubt she would have faced the long-term trauma and mental health issues that losing a family member to prison is known to cause.

Beyond that, my recovery would have been knocked off the rails. The plain truth is that prisons are not equipped to provide adequate support and health care for people in recovery. In the years since my last arrest I have taken part in many programs within the VA health care system on my own accord, and become very active in a 12-step program. I’ve relapsed several times along this journey, but I have always had a support system there to help me get back up. Going to prison and being separated from those supports could have cost me my recovery and possibly my life.

I personally know many people that have been convicted of drug offenses, many of which were on a far smaller scale than my own offense, and who were convicted and incarcerated. After release, they have all struggled with readjusting to life in any meaningful way.

Most of them have returned to drug use and low-level ‘street’ dealing since being released. Many of them have been convicted of subsequent offenses and sent back to prison. They aren’t what most of us would think of as traffickers — they are simply desperate to make a meager living and spend most of what they make to maintain their own use. Yet because of Maine’s out-of-touch drug laws, they are slapped with felony trafficking charges just for trying to keep up, and back to prison they go.

And it’s a vicious cycle, because once they get out of prison with a felony record, it’s nearly impossible to get a “real” job. So they end up back where they started, selling small amounts of drugs just to get by.

I don’t believe that justice — or our society — are well-served by creating criminals out of people who use drugs. People who use drugs don’t need more punishment, and diverting them from the criminal justice system and making treatment and other supports available would go much further toward addressing the problem. I know, because I had the benefit of the alternative.

For that reason, I encourage Maine’s lawmakers to think critically about the situation we are in and the solutions that will truly help us out of it. L.D. 1492, a bill in the Maine Legislature to re-examine our felony drug laws, is one of those solutions; I hope the legislature and Gov. Mills will support it.

Dale Furno lives in Norridgewock.


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