A man walks around the rear of the State House in Augusta on June 30, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

Elijah Munro-Ludders is a recent graduate from the University of Maine Political Science Department where he was a Drug Policy Research Fellow. These are his views and do not express those of the University of Maine System or the University of Maine. He was invited to share his perspective by the Maine chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

Despite a decades-long war on drugs, problematic substance use remains an issue across the country. Maine’s Legislature had the opportunity to pass a bill, L.D. 967, that would have reformed our failed approach by decriminalizing possession of drugs for personal use. But our elected officials in the state Senate rejected it and failed our state.

In Maine, nearly 50 Mainers a month are dying from overdoses, and 2021 is on track to be our deadliest year on record. The most recent Maine data shows that we continue to arrest and incarcerate individuals for possession at striking rates. Maine alone spent more than $6.5 million policing substance use between 2017 and 2018. The war on drugs has had devastating effects on Maine communities. Punishing people who use drugs doesn’t work.

L.D. 967, would have restructured our state’s sentencing procedures for low-level possession of drugs. Minor amounts of drugs for personal consumption would no longer have been a criminal penalty, but a civil one instead. Rather than sending people who possess only small amounts of drugs to prison, this would have provided pathways to recovery.

L.D. 967 is not as radical as it sounds. Countries around the world have used decriminalization policies to successfully address their opioid crises. If you’re skeptical about decriminalization, consider the following points.

First; the stigma around substance use often flows from misguided understandings of drug use and addiction. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that less than a quarter of those who use heroin in their lifetime struggle with addiction. This means that the majority of people who use heroin do not experience problematic drug use and live perfectly healthy lives.

Second; despite this, the punishment for being arrested for possession has life-long consequences. Those charged with possession, holding even small amounts of drugs, have a significantly harder time obtaining jobs and housing — prerequisites for being a functional member of society.

Third; substance-use disorder often begins with health issues that are entirely unrelated to someone’s decision to use drugs. Research conducted in 2011 found that a staggering 80 percent of people with substance-use disorder began first with prescription opioids. It’s no secret that the pharmaceutical industry has a history of overprescribing powerful drugs for even minor injuries — doctors are even paid to do it.

Finally, systems designed to hold bad actors accountable have failed us. The real bad guys in this story aren’t our community members getting locked up. Big Pharma has been involved in countless trials and faced huge legal settlements — totaling in the billions of dollars — but this does not compare to the thousands of Mainers who have died in the opioid epidemic sparked by these companies. Nor do these settlements even approach the actual costs of opioid use disorder, an annual loss that one recent study put at over half a trillion dollars.

With our antiquated system, we have to ask ourselves what to do next. We could keep throwing money at the problem, arresting Mainers on minor possession crimes despite the lack of progress. Or we could consider fair and reasonable alternatives. That’s what L.D. 967, and the diverse coalition of advocates working on it, boldly did.

L.D. 967 could have been a turning point in Maine’s failed war on drugs. It was a sign that our state is coming to understand that substance use isn’t what we thought it was, and that trying to punish away the problem hasn’t worked.

This conversation about policy alternatives should not, and will not, stop here. We must return to decriminalization as a policy alternative if we want to stop the irrational policy of drug criminalization, and follow a fair and compassionate path forward.