At the lowest tier of the drug trade, people are caught in a whirlpool of addiction and petty crime. It is a destructive, sometimes deadly and always very costly cycle, and the first priority in ending Maine’s opiate epidemic should be to break it.

Unfortunately, the cycle has proven nearly invulnerable to past strategies, which more often stigmatized low-level drug users and dealers, pushing them further to the margins of society and making it more difficult for them to find their way back.

Now, out of Seattle, comes a program that has shown promise in succeeding where mass incarceration and zero-tolerance policies have not.

The program has grabbed the attention of the Maine Mayors’ Coalition, which this week will present to the Department of Health and Human Services a preliminary plan for bringing it here.

Their pitch – $2 million to fund pilot projects emulating the Seattle program at eight sites in Maine – should get careful consideration as a way to efficiently use treatment resources, and to free the criminal justice system to focus on the worst drug offenders.

A NEW LEAD

Seattle launched the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, program as a pilot project in October 2011, using $4 million from private foundations.

On certain nights, police officers in the city’s downtown are given the discretion to offer the program’s services, in lieu of arrest, to people caught on minor drug charges.

The offenders are given case managers, who provide the immediate help of meals, clothes and a safe place to stay, as well as access to treatment, housing and job training programs.

The program is targeted toward the people most likely to benefit. It is individually tailored to guide the person to sobriety and a more stable life, to help them find services when that process can be confusing, difficult and frustrating for someone trying to beat an addiction.

The realities of the disease are understood. Relapses are expected, and the program supports people through those tough moments.

Still, law enforcement reserves the power to file charges if necessary.

SAVING, AND SAVINGS

LEAD has been hailed by police and prosecutors alike, and multiple independent studies show why.

Compared to people in similar circumstances who didn’t take part in the program, those who participated are far less likely to be arrested again or charged with a felony.

Participants, without another charge on their record, also were more likely to have regular employment and stable housing, as well as extended sobriety.

Taking into account the lower costs to the criminal justice and legal systems, one study put the savings at $8,000 per participant per year.

(The cost to the city began at almost $11,000 per participant per year, but dropped quickly to around $6,400.)

The Mayors’ Coalition, which includes Biddeford, Portland, Saco, Sanford, South Portland and Westbrook, rightfully sees the program as transferrable to Maine.

So many people here have found themselves suddenly and hopelessly addicted, whether through legitimately prescribed pain medications, as a result of psychiatric illness or somewhere at the intersection of poor choice and susceptible brain chemistry.

For many, the only crime they commit is the one that gets them through the day, and placing them in the criminal justice system only makes it more likely they will stay a criminal.

Providing a guide to stability and sobriety, however, can help make them contributing members of society, and may be the only way to truly diminish the drug crisis.