‘Every overdose is a policy failure’: Mainers in recovery ask legislature to end punitive drug laws

‘Every overdose is a policy failure’: Mainers in recovery ask legislature to end punitive drug laws

June 9, 2021 Evan Popp

With the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of a “War on Drugs” approaching, Mainers who have been criminalized for substance use disorder gathered Wednesday at the State House to ask lawmakers to move away from decades of failed, punitive policies and support a bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs.

Dozens of advocates and people in recovery rallied in favor of LD 967, sponsored by Rep. Anne Perry (D-Calais), which would make drug possession a civil violation and offer people a pathway to treatment and recovery instead of incarceration. Dressed in black, advocates lined the State House hallways and handed flowers to lawmakers as they walked to the House and Senate chambers. 

Courtney Allen, policy director for the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project, said the flowers represented all the people who have been lost due to the criminalization of people who use substances. The goal of the event, she said, was to hand a flower to every lawmaker and urge them to vote in favor of LD 967. 

As Beacon previously reported, over 500 Mainers died of drug overdoses in 2020, setting a new record in the state. Pointing to that grim tally and the large number of people incarcerated for drug-related charges, lawmakers, doctors and Mainers in recovery argued during a late April public hearing that criminalizing the disease of substance use disorder is not working. Advocates urged the state to take a new approach that centers treatment rather than punishment. 

A 2020 study conducted by the Oregon Health & Science University-Portland State University School of Public Health found drug overdose is the leading cause of death after release from prison, with such individuals’ risk of dying from a drug overdose as much as 12.7 times higher than the general population in the first two weeks after release.  

“We’re all here to send a message to our lawmakers. One death is too many and every overdose is a policy failure,” said Whitney Parrish, director of advocacy and communications at the Health Equity Alliance.

Ryan Gary, who is in recovery, said the way people who use substances are treated by the state is simply not effective. During the times he was incarcerated on drug-related charges, Gary said he was not offered treatment, but instead was placed in situations that spurred recidivism. 

In contrast, putting people in a position to get treatment and form community with others in recovery would be a far more effective way to treat substance use disorder, he explained. 

“When I got out of jail, if it hadn’t been for people in the recovery community, I don’t think I would have been able to find housing, employment opportunities,” Gary said. “These things are barriers for people to really recover and take the next step acclimating back into the community and becoming productive members of society.” 

Another participant at the event, Adam Rice of the Church of Safe Injection, said LD 967 is about changing the tenor of the discussion about people with substance use disorder toward a commitment to helping people, the same way society would seek to treat someone with a disease like diabetes. 

“I look at it as shifting the tone to more of a health issue than a criminal justice issue,” Rice said. “People just need help that they’re not getting right now.” 

“I don’t think anybody isn’t worth fighting for,” Rice added. 

Marshall Merceo, who has been incarcerated on drug-related charges, also spoke about the importance of LD 967 in combating the stigma against those who use substances. 

“I looked for help but didn’t find it. I got stigmatized looking for help,” he said, explaining that “every time I would look for help, there’d always be someone looking down on me. So we’re not going to go looking for help if people are arresting us and throwing us in jail.”

LD 967 is one of a number of policies that advocates and lawmakers are backing in an effort to move Maine away from punishing substance use disorder and toward providing people with options for recovery. Along with the decriminalization bill, groups are also pushing for a bill that would decriminalize possession and exchange of hypodermic syringes. That bill has been passed by the House and the Senate. 

An additional bill lawmakers will soon take up seeks to rein in Maine’s felony drug trafficking law, which is among the harshest in the country, and to eliminate the disparity in Maine law between crack cocaine and powder cocaine, which are essentially the same drug chemically. Both that bill and LD 967 were advanced out of committee late last month and will soon face votes before the legislature. 

The need to reform the state’s drug laws to emphasize treatment and connection with others in recovery is clear, Merceo said, who is now four years sober and attending college.

“I found a community that loved me, helped me and showed me how to live through love not punishment,” he said. “Love brought me back.” 

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