In 2021, we lost 627 Mainers to preventable drug overdose, a grim record for the state. This year, astoundingly, we have watched even more Mainers overdose with even more lethal results. It is difficult to find a single Mainer who has not been personally impacted by the loss of a friend or loved one to our contemporary collective crisis. Their absence leaves gaping holes in our families and our communities.

But what is to be done on this most vexing of policy issues? We set out to understand this complex question through a first-of-its-kind, comprehensive statewide survey, administered online to a sample of 417 registered Maine voters with a margin of error of 4.8%. Our sample adequately aligned with characteristics like gender, age, political affiliation, socioeconomic status and more. Through this work, we can better understand what public policies Mainers support and how those attitudes are formed.

Paramedics and EMTs from both Waterville fire and Delta Ambulance work to resuscitate a man who was experiencing a drug overdose. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file photo

The results are clear. An overwhelming majority of Maine voters have grown weary of policy approaches centered on criminal punishment. Instead, they favor sweeping reforms that treat substance use disorder (SUD) as a public health issue.

In the United States, someone is arrested every three seconds. Roughly 26% of these arrests are for drug-related offenses. We saw a 171% increase in drug arrests from 1980 to 2016. And while overall incarceration and arrest rates in the United States have fallen in recent years, drug arrests and imprisonment on drug-related charges have remained steady. Despite this explosion in criminal enforcement, overdose rates have more than tripled over the last 20 years while the prevalence of substance use among Americans 12 or older increased by roughly 6% from 2009-2019. As we have escalated the war on drugs, the underlying problem has gotten worse.

Mainers are united in their rejection of longstanding attempts to use arrest and imprisonment to tackle SUD. Nearly 74% of our survey respondents supported shifting away from prosecution and incarceration for nonviolent, low-level drug offenses. Simply put, they do not want to see Mainers arrested or incarcerated for the possession of illicit substances for personal use.

Furthermore, strong majority support was evident regardless of whether one was a Democrat or a Republican (as well as other potential dividing lines like age, religion, gender, or parental status). Despite such broad-based public support, a drug decriminalization measure similar to this approach, L.D. 967, was rejected in the Maine Senate in 2021.


In place of criminalization, Mainers expressed emphatic support for community-based public health support for those struggling with SUD. All of the following proposals received in excess of 80% support among respondents: increasing access to case management services; increasing access to SUD treatment; supporting medically monitored withdrawal “detox” services in every Maine county, and funding local recovery community centers (where those in recovery can gain mutual, peer support from others in long-term recovery).

Again, support for such policies held across numerous potential social and political divisions.

Our respondents also showed strong support for the continued broad distribution of overdose prevention medication such as naloxone and education on its use in Maine communities. Over 76% of respondents agreed with such efforts. Mainers understand that the path to recovery is typically not linear and that individuals who have abstained from opioids (due to abstinence, incarceration, or detox) can be most at risk for fatal overdose. Naloxone is a critical tool in ensuring that those seeking recovery are not tragically taken from us while on that complicated journey.

In light of these statewide realizations, policy positions and cruel political rhetoric rooted in stigmatization and dehumanization of those with SUD are increasingly at odds with the evolving perspectives of Maine voters. It is also clear that a majority of Mainers view our decades-long “war on drugs” as an abject failure and are enthusiastic about rethinking our approach.

In such challenging political times, it is rare to encounter an urgent issue on which there exists such broad-based unity. A robust, bipartisan majority of Mainers see the measures above as common-sense reforms that offer a path forward in our state’s attempts to combat problematic substance use and the overdose crisis. Our state’s political leaders would do well to heed their call for a new approach.

Robert W. Glover is an associate professor of political science and honors at the University of Maine. Karyn Sporer is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Maine. These are their views and do not express those of the University of Maine System or the University of Maine. Both are co-leaders of the Maine chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications.

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