With the nation facing an unprecedented heroin epidemic and the number of Americans dying from overdoses surpassing those killed in car crashes in several states across the U.S., it has become abundantly clear the war on drugs has only served to wreak havoc on our communities and fill our prisons. The criminal justice system cannot — and has not been able to — stem the growth of drug use in the country, nor has it been able to prevent the very overdose epidemic it sought to prevent. We cannot arrest our way to a healthy, safe nation.
According to a survey conducted earlier this year by Public Policy Polling, for the Drug Policy Alliance, a substantial majority of Maine voters support decriminalizing drug possession. Sixty-four percent of voters in Maine think people caught with a small amount of illegal drugs for personal use should be evaluated for drug issues and offered treatment; they shouldn’t be arrested or face jail time. Seventy-one percent say substantially reducing incarceration is somewhat or very important to them.
This week the Legislature will consider legislation seeking to roll back groundbreaking reforms passed last session that reduced drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. The proposed legislation, LD 1554, would continue the criminalization of drug users and waste scarce resources on incarceration instead of treatment and prevention. Under this proposed bill, users not engaged in any other type of illegal conduct would face mandatory felony prosecution for possessing even minuscule amounts of certain substances.
A felony conviction is a serious matter with lifelong consequences that disrupt people’s lives long after they’ve entered recovery. Felony convictions are rarely expunged. They would require a governor’s pardon to do so.
“Addiction should be treated by health care professionals rather than the criminal justice system and, as a taxpayer and citizen of Maine, I would prefer our tax dollars go to prevention, treatment and recovery rather than mounting costly felony prosecutions against the users actively facing addiction,” Chris Poulos, a person in long-term recovery who overcame addiction and federal incarceration to attend law school and work on criminal justice policy reform at the local, state and federal levels, said in testimony to the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.
Earlier this month Chief Justice Leigh Saufley called on lawmakers to take new approaches to respond to the state’s growing opiate addiction crisis during her annual State of the Judiciary address. Maine must move away from the failed policies of the drug war that filled up our prisons and embrace new ideas such as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion programs, which have been proven to make a positive impact in getting folks the help they need while making our communities safer.
In 2015, Maine took a sensible and much needed approach to dealing with drug use by enacting legislation that defelonized simple possession of small amounts of drugs. For first-time offenders, under that law change, a judge would have the discretion to consider imposing a sentencing alternative that includes medical and mental health treatment for addiction, when appropriate. But by making drug possession a felony offense, legislators would be making it harder for people with drug problems to get treatment and reintegrate into society. People with felony convictions are commonly discriminated against in employment and housing and can be denied many public benefits. Problematic drug use is best dealt with in the public health system, and LD 1554 must be defeated for the good of Maine.
Support for ending the criminalization of drug use and possession outright is gaining traction in the U.S. More than 1.5 million drug arrests are made every year in this country — the overwhelming majority for possession only. High-profile endorsers of not arresting, let alone jailing people for possessing small amounts of any drug, include the American Public Health Association, the World Health Organization, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, the Organization of American States, the National Latino Congreso, the NAACP, the International Red Cross and Human Rights Watch.
Kenney Miller is executive director of the Down East Aids Network and Health Equity Alliance in Bangor. He is co-founder of the Maine Harm Reduction Alliance.