Members of Maine’s recovery community gathered at the State House on Thursday to urge lawmakers to take a different approach to substance use policy by decriminalizing personal possession of drugs and investing in treatment rather than doubling down on punitive measures that have been consistently ineffective.
To reinforce that point, advocates held a presentation Thursday — attended by myriad lawmakers — during which they shared and discussed a report released last year by the ACLU of Maine and the Maine Center for Economic Policy (MECEP) showing the failures of the state’s current drug policy approach. In that report, the authors argued that decriminalizing personal possession of drugs and investing in treatment would lead to far better health outcomes for people with substance use disorder — while also saving Maine millions — by allowing them to access help instead of facing incarceration and the scant recovery resources available in prisons and jails.
“We can’t both believe that substance use disorder is a disease and truly lean into our values around that and criminalize the symptom of that disease,” Courtney Gary-Allen, organizing director of the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project (ME-RAP), said Thursday. “Those things don’t work together.”
The argument for dealing with substance use disorder outside of carceral settings is reinforced by a 2020 study showing that drug overdoses are the leading cause of death after release from prison, with such individuals’ risk of dying from an overdose 12.7 times higher than the general population in the first two weeks after release.
Given that dynamic and given that Maine saw yet another record number of drug overdose deaths in 2022 — 716, or nearly two a day — advocates have unveiled a slate of bills in the Maine Legislature to address the worsening crisis by deploying a public health-centered approach.
“It’s so important,” Jeanne Marquis, an organizer with ME-RAP, said of the slate of bills. “It’s about making treatment available wherever you live. And it’s about treating people with humanity versus punishment because [substance use disorder] is a disease.”
One of the primary bills advocates are pushing for is “An Act to Implement a Statewide Public Health Response to Substance Use,” sponsored by Rep. Lydia Crafts (D-Newcastle). While the language has not yet been finalized, the idea behind the measure is to decriminalize personal possession of drugs and invest in treatment for substance use so people receive medical care for the problems associated with drugs.
The bill will likely be similar to a measure pushed by ME-RAP and other groups in 2021, although that legislation didn’t include funding for treatment programs. The 2021 bill passed the House but was rejected by the Senate amid opposition from both Democrats and Republicans. Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, also opposed the 2021 bill and has often emerged as an obstacle to overall drug policy and criminal justice reform.
Another measure that recovery proponents are pushing this session is a bill to create harm reduction health centers where people could use previously obtained illicit drugs under medical supervision and receive health screenings and other recovery services. Along with that, the slate of drug policy reforms also includes a bill to increase the scant number of detox beds in Maine, legislation to support recovery community centers, a bill to provide rental assistance to people living in recovery residences, and a measure to require instruction in schools on substance use prevention and the administration of the opioid overdose reversal medication naloxone.
“The bottom line is that what we are doing is not working at all,” Marquis said of the state’s current approach to drug policy. “We need to change tactics.”
Molly Whyte, an organizer with ME-RAP and the harm reduction group Church of Safe Injection, agreed. Whyte, a person in recovery, said current War on Drugs-type policies in Maine have been a massive failure.
“It’s not a War on Drugs, it’s a war on humanity,” Whyte said. “And that’s what it always has been. Nobody is winning.”
“We’re seeing overdose deaths continue to increase each year, and the response from the state has been lackluster at best,” added Rosie Boyce, another organizer with ME-RAP who is also a person in recovery.
Boyce said lawmakers began the process of thinking differently about drug policy last year by expanding Maine’s “Good Samaritan” law to create the strongest protections from prosecution in the nation for people at the scene of an overdose in an effort to get people to call for help in such situations. That was a massive step forward, Boyce said, although she noted that she’s concerned with a measure introduced this session that would roll back some of the enhanced protections created by the updated Good Samaritan law. Boyce, Gary-Allen and others in the recovery community are calling on lawmakers to protect the expanded law.
At the presentation Thursday on the ACLU and MECEP report, Gary-Allen also reiterated for lawmakers in attendance the seriousness of the current crisis and the need for immediate action that builds on the steps already taken.
“Our friends are still dying,” she said. “Our friends across the state of Maine — 716 people. And when I say that number, I see faces. It’s like a reel of humans that I love. … We have solutions. This legislature and the governor and the people who are in power just need to be willing to do those solutions.”