Prison sentences for drug offenses in Maine are more common than prison sentences in any other category, according to a recent report by The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center. Despite our overreliance on incarceration, we still have an overdose epidemic on our hands. Tragically, in 2020 there were 502 deaths from overdose in Maine. A possible solution to this problem is the decriminalization of drugs. 

This legislative session, Rep. Anne Perry, D-Calais, is sponsoring L.D. 967, An Act To Make Possession of Scheduled Drugs for Personal Use a Civil Penalty. This bill would decriminalize the personal possession and use of drugs and would aim to reorient the classification of drug use from a criminal issue to a health issue. Those found in possession of a scheduled substance could face a fine of up to $100, or alternatively be referred to a health-care provider to be given a medical assessment for substance use disorder treatment. 

Currently, people who could be receiving community-based treatment for problematic substance use are instead labeled a criminal and incarcerated. Upon their eventual release, they face an uphill battle to reintegrate into society. They struggle to find steady employment, find safe and reliable housing, and earn an education. These factors, and others, create a cycle of problematic substance use and incarceration, as they exacerbate the underlying causes of the problematic substance use. 

Additionally, the war on drugs disproportionately affects people of color. A recent report found that black individuals — who make up only 1% of Maine’s population — account for 21% of class A felony drug arrests and 15% of class B felony drug arrests in Maine. Important to note is that white people use and sell drugs at higher rates than people of color. 

The incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders is also unnecessarily expensive. The Maine State Legislature and the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency found that the yearly cost per prisoner in Maine is over $42,000 and that $6.5 million is spent on policing drug crimes alone. 

The punitive approach is also ineffective. Roughly 88,000 Mainers were addicted to a substance between 2015 and 2016, and only 5,000 of those people were able to access treatment services, according to the CSG Justice Center.

The data are loud and clear: Something needs to be done to address the opioid crisis, and a punitive approach is not the answer. 

Maine’s best bet is to take action similar to Oregon’s Measure 110. The measure, which took effect on February 1st of this year, treats personal possession and use of drugs as an offense similar to that of running a stop sign. Those found in possession of drugs may be issued a fine of up to $100, which can be bypassed if the individual chooses to partake in a health assessment. The sale and production of drugs remain illegal. 

Passing L.D. 967 is Maine’s chance to follow in Oregon’s footsteps and pave the way for the rest of the nation to introduce effective, evidence-based drug policy, rather than sit idly by as the opioid epidemic continues to take its toll. Mainers should contact their representatives in support of this bill and, those who feel so inclined, should also provide testimony for the hearing on Friday, April 30 at 10 a.m. in the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee

Elizabeth Davis is a third-year political science student and a drug policy research fellow at the University of Maine. These are her views and do not express those of the University of Maine System or the University of Maine. 

 


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