What do we get out of a drug arrest?

Ultimately, that’s the question at the center of the debate around how we should treat addiction and the horrible overdose epidemic it has wrought. Rather than continuing to do what has got us to this point, we have to ask: What do we, as a society and individuals, gain when someone is arrested on a drug offense?

For a lot of people, it’s an easy question: A drug arrest keeps us safe. It takes drugs off the street, discourages drug use, and punishes those who don’t follow the law.

That’s how, as a matter of federal, state and local policy, the U.S. has tried to keep drugs from destroying lives — and we’ve been doing it for so long now that it can seem like the only way to do it.

But it’s not. There are other ways to treat drug use.

In Portugal, where injectable drug use was causing disease, death and incarceration on a wide scale — sound familiar? — possession of small amounts of drugs was decriminalized in 2001. Selling or trafficking drugs remains illegal, but people caught simply using drugs are steered toward counseling or treatment, sometimes with a fine or community service.


As a result, incarcerations have fallen, as have HIV infection rates. Overdose rates have remained low there even as they have risen steeply throughout Europe and the U.S.

Oregon passed similar legislation in 2020, and it is starting to show results.

A drug decriminalization bill passed the Maine House of Representatives last year, too, but failed in the Senate.

That should be the beginning of something, not the end. In Portugal, and now Oregon, money formerly spent on law enforcement and incarceration was shifted to treatment. With the stigma over drug use reduced, more people were willing to come forward for help.

That could happen in Maine too.

According to a new report from the Maine chapter of the ACLU and the Maine Center for Economic Policy, state and local governments here spend $111 million on arresting and incarcerating people who use drugs. About one in every 11 arrests is related to drugs, and these aren’t kingpins: Almost three-quarters of drug arrests are for possession.


Those arrests aren’t getting us anywhere, either. Incarceration of low-level drug users does nothing to lower the overall drug supply, nor does it convince others to stop using — supply and demand are driven by much bigger factors. Instead, in most cases, it makes overcoming addiction more difficult.

And incarceration hardly keeps us safer — after decades of treating drug use as a crime, drugs have never been more prevalent, nor more deadly.

But still, through habit if nothing else, our society puts too much stock in the power of a drug arrest. You can see it in the debate over the Good Samaritan bill, where opponents don’t want to give up the chance to arrest someone, even if it may save a life.

But every instance of drug use does not have to be prosecuted. Most of the time, there is very little harm. The vast majority of people who try an illicit drug do so recreationally; they don’t get addicted, and they eventually stop on their own accord.

For most drug users, the only law they break is using drugs. The vast majority never do anything to harm anyone else as a result of their use. So what are we getting out of their arrest?

Why should we spend so much money and effort trying to punish them, when it could go toward helping those people who need it?


Comments are no longer available on this story