Facing record overdoses, advocates say it’s time to change Maine’s punitive drug laws

As a new report released by the Maine Attorney General’s Office shows that drug overdose deaths this year are on pace to rise past the record numbers seen in 2020, advocates are urging elected officials to pass legislation that would move the state away from criminalizing substance use and toward treating it as a public health issue. 

The Attorney General’s Office last week put out overdose death reports for March and April. In March, there were 57 probable drug overdose deaths. That exceeds the number of drug deaths from June of last year, the month in 2020 that saw the most overdoses. As a whole, there were 504 overdose deaths in 2020, the highest total ever in Maine during a single year. 

For April, the Maine AG reported 48 total overdose deaths, with 10 of those confirmed and 38 suspected. That brings the total number of confirmed and suspected overdose deaths in 2021 to 199 through the end of April, an increase over that same period of time in 2020 when 163 Mainers died from drug overdoses. 

While the report says caution should be exercised when looking at overdose numbers from a single month, as the total may fluctuate without statistical significance, criminal justice reform advocates say the trend so far through the first four months of 2021 is extremely concerning and shows that the state’s approach to dealing with substance use disorder is fundamentally flawed. 

“As we continue to see increased overdose deaths, we must reckon with how our current drug enforcement laws are not working,” Meagan Sway, policy director at the ACLU of Maine, said in a statement after the release of the AG’s report. 

‘We need a public health response to a public health crisis’

During this year’s legislative session, recovery groups and advocates have pushed for a number of reforms that would put the state on a different path when it comes to drug policy, moving Maine away from decades of failed, punitive “War on Drugs” policies in favor of emphasizing treatment for substance use disorder. Two of those bills — a measure that would rein in Maine’s harsh felony drug trafficking law and a bill that would remove criminal penalties for possession and exchange of hypodermic needles — have been passed by the legislature.  

A third bill, LD 967, would decriminalize possession of scheduled drugs by making it a civil violation. Instead of facing incarceration, those in possession of such drugs could pay a fine of up to $100 or be referred for an evidence-based assessment of treatment options for substance use disorder. The measure passed the House earlier this month and is pending in the Senate. Lawmakers are expected to return to Augusta at the end of June to take up budget proposals and unfinished business such as LD 967, with reform advocates urging the legislature to pass the measure.

“Decades of punishment have only led to wasted resources, hurting communities, and devastated — or lost — lives,” said Whitney Parrish, policy and advocacy director at the Health Equity Alliance. “More and more, lawmakers and Mainers are recognizing this failed policy approach has harmed our communities and ravaged health outcomes for generations. LD 967 would be a significant step toward treating substance use like a medical condition, saving more lives and making individuals and communities whole.”

The bill has received support from a broad coalition of people, including those in the recovery community, criminal justice reform proponents and medical experts who all say it’s essential for the state to shift its drug policy approach away from criminalization as overdose deaths continue to rise. 

A sign at a State House rally earlier this month in support of LD 967 | Beacon

During a legislative hearing on the bill in April, Winifred Tate, director of the Drug Policy Lab at Colby College, directed lawmakers’ attention to a 2020 study that showed drug overdose is the leading cause of death after release from incarceration. That study found such individuals’ risk of dying from a drug overdose was 12.7 times higher than the general population in the first two weeks after release. 

“We need a public health response to a public health crisis,” Tate said after the March and April drug overdose reports were made public. “The likelihood of a person dying from an overdose death after being released from jail dramatically increases. Jail is not a place where the vast majority of people with substance use disorder can find recovery.”

Sway agreed, saying Maine must abandon the idea that arresting people is a solution to substance use. 

“When we insist on using the criminal legal system to address drug use, it tears families and communities apart, and people keep dying,” she said. “LD 967 would help ensure people who use drugs don’t lose access to housing, employment, family and other critical supports that are essential to their health and well-being.”

Proponents of the bill have also pointed out that a fiscal analysis shows that LD 967 — which would enact reforms supported by a majority of Maine voters — would save the state around a half million dollars annually. Such funds could be invested in services that help people rather than criminalize them, said Courtney Allen, policy director at the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project. 

“The recovery community aches for every person we have lost to overdose deaths,” Allen said after the release of the AG’s report. “Our current drug policies are not only failing to keep people alive, but also wasting taxpayers resources. The money LD 967 would save us annually could be used to expand access to detox beds, harm reduction services, treatment, recovery community centers and recovery housing. These are the things that we know help to initiate and sustain long term recovery, not jail time and a criminal record.” 

Those with experience being criminalized for substance use have also spoken about the need for reform, arguing that the state’s current approach is often harmful to those seeking recovery. 

“I looked for help but didn’t find it,” Marshall Mercer, who has been incarcerated on drug-related charges, told Beacon at a recent event at the State House on LD 967. “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.”

Reform faces hurdles from Mills administration 

As groups push for LD 967 to be approved, Gov. Janet Mills — a Democrat — looms as a potential barrier.

In a statement to the Portland Press Herald last week after the release of the overdose reports, the governor emphasized the role of the pandemic in the increase in drug deaths. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult in many ways, and this is yet another example of how it has hurt our state and our people,” she said.

“As we reflect upon those we lost, let us honor their lives by rededicating ourselves to ending the scourge of substance disorder and overdose deaths in our state, preventing addiction in the first place and expanding access to treatment and recovery options,” Mills added, pointing to actions by her administration such as mobile response teams in each county designed to connect people with treatment services and engage in harm-reduction strategies. In addition, as reported by the Press Herald, the governor said she hopes “a new accidental drug overdose review panel in the Maine Attorney General’s Office would help officials better understand the circumstances of each death so policies can be adjusted with the aim of preventing additional fatalities.”

Still, despite the stories of those in recovery and the advice of medical experts who say decriminalizing drugs would allow more people to get help by opening added pathways to treatment, both Mills and Attorney General Aaron Frey opposed LD 967 during the committee hearing on the bill in April. That means even if the bill passes the Senate, it may be vetoed by the governor, a former prosecutor and attorney general who has already vetoed a series of reforms to the criminal legal system passed by the legislature. 

Not acting to change how Maine addresses substance use would be a grave mistake, proponents of LD 967 and criminal justice reform-minded lawmakers say. Rep. Charlotte Warren (D-Hallowell), a leading supporter of the bill, argued during a floor debate in the House earlier this month that the need for a different approach is clear, urging her colleagues to support LD 967.  

“We’ve tried criminalizing this disease for decades and 11 Mainers a week are dying,” Warren said after the House vote. “Substance use disorder is a disease. And a symptom of the disease is possessing the substance. That’s why the House voted to no longer criminalize possession. We need to treat the disease in order to save lives. What we are doing is not working. We want to save lives.”

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