“Criminalizing substance use disorder and the possession of drugs just disrupts more and more lives, making it harder for people to live healthy and productive lives.”
By Evan Popp, Maine Morning Star
Lawmakers and advocates kicked off a campaign last week to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs and invest in treating substance use disorder rather than punishing it—a push that comes as Maine remains in the grips of a deadly overdose epidemic.
The bill advocates are supporting, LD 1975, was introduced last year but carried over to this year’s legislative session. If passed, the measure would decriminalize the personal possession of schedule W, X, Y and Z drugs, which include substances such as methamphetamine, various opioids, cocaine and other criminalized drugs.
Supporters of the bill say the reform is needed because many Mainers using these drugs are suffering from the disease of substance use disorder. Criminalizing that addiction only pushes a person further away from treatment options, advocates argue. Instead, Maine needs to take the money currently used to enforce laws against drug use and invest it in creating a robust array of treatment options for those with substance use disorder, proponents said during a virtual event hosted by the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project on Tuesday.
“We know that many Mainers who are struggling with substance use disorder that want help are not always able to access treatment. And as a result, our communities are being devastated and ravaged by overdoses,” Rep. Lydia Crafts (D-Newcastle), the sponsor of LD 1975, said during the forum.
Along with decriminalizing the personal possession of scheduled drugs, LD 1975 would also set up enhanced treatment options for Mainers. The bill would use the money that the state saves from not arresting and incarcerating people caught with drugs to create the Substance Use, Health and Safety Fund within the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). That fund would also receive money from taxes on cannabis products.
The fund would be used to establish at least one crisis receiving center in each county to provide 24/7 services for those with substance use disorder. Such services could include health needs assessments, screenings to get treatment and help accessing treatment options.
Furthermore, through the fund, DHHS would provide grants to community organizations to improve substance use treatment and access to recovery resources around the state. Some programs the money would support include intensive case management for those with addiction, ongoing peer support and counseling, overdose prevention, increased access to sterile syringes and naloxone, low-barrier treatment with options that are not abstinence-based, community recovery centers and medically-managed withdrawal services, among other resources.
The push for LD 1975, which will be taken up by the Health and Human Services Committee at a public hearing on Wednesday, comes as hundreds of Mainers continue to die each year from drug overdoses.
Overdoses in 2022 claimed the lives of 723 people, or nearly two a day, setting a grim new record in the state. Although that number is likely to drop for 2023 as a whole, it remains high, with the state reporting 559 drug overdose deaths last year through November.
“What…the state has been doing isn’t working,” Crafts said. “Criminalizing substance use disorder and the possession of drugs just disrupts more and more lives, making it harder for people to live healthy and productive lives in their communities. What we are hoping to do with LD 1975 is make the shift away from a criminal justice issue and into the public health sphere.”
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At Tuesday’s event, Rep. Lucas Lanigan of Sanford, a Republican, also spoke in favor of the measure. Along with Lanigan, the bill is being co-sponsored by two other Republicans—House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham of Winter Harbor and Rep. David Boyer of Poland—giving the legislation bipartisan backing.
Lanigan spoke about his son, who he said was celebrating being 14 months sober that night after many overdoses and legal issues.
“This bill is very, very important. It’s not only important to me and my family but it’s important to a lot of families in Maine,” he said.
“We want to make it easier to recover. And in this state we don’t have that,” he added.
Medical professionals spoke in support of LD 1975, as well. Lani Graham, a family practice physician and former chief public health officer for Maine, said the measure would finally create a public health approach to addiction.
“This means treating people who are ill with substance use disorders as patients needing services and not as criminals needing jail time,” she said, comparing the current approach of criminalizing drug use to arresting an alcoholic for possession of alcohol.
Graham also noted that addressing addiction requires extensive follow-up with patients. But she said such support often becomes impossible when someone is arrested and receives a felony conviction, demonstrating the pitfalls of criminalizing drug use.
Chasity Tuell, northern Maine director of harm reduction services at Maine Access Points, agreed. Tuell, who has experience with substance use, said people need resources and support that don’t exist within the confines of prisons or jails.
“We need hope for our future, a purpose for our lives and we create those for ourselves,” she said. “The criminal justice system does not create those for us.”
While LD 1975 is likely to receive significant support from advocates, the recovery community and medical professionals, the bill faces an uncertain legislative path given that a previous attempt in 2021 to decriminalize possession of scheduled drugs in Maine failed in the Senate amid opposition from Republicans and some Democrats.
Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, opposed the 2021 bill. Mills, who has often been skeptical of further-reaching criminal justice reforms, also came out against a measure introduced last year to allow municipalities to establish harm reduction health centers—sites where people can administer previously obtained drugs under medical supervision as a way to prevent overdoses.
Mills did ultimately sign a version of that bill to study the use of such centers. And in 2022, the governor struck a deal with recovery advocates on a measure to strengthen Maine’s Good Samaritan Law, creating enhanced protections from prosecution for those at the scene of an overdose as part of an effort to encourage people to call for help during a drug-related medical emergency.
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