WASHINGTON — With the nation currently facing an unprecedented heroin epidemic and the number of Americans dying from overdose surpassing those killed in car accidents in several states across the U.S., it has become abundantly clear that the war on drugs has only served to wreak havoc on our communities and fill our prisons.

The criminal justice system has not been able to stem the growth of drug use in the country, nor has it been able to prevent the overdose epidemic that it sought to prevent. We cannot arrest our way to a healthy, safe nation.

This week, the Maine Legislature is considering a measure backed by Attorney General Janet Mills that could roll back groundbreaking reforms passed last session that reduced drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor.

The proposed legislation (L.D. 1554) would make any amount of certain other drugs into felony offenses – continuing the criminalization of drug users and wasting scarce resources on incarceration instead of treatment and prevention.

Under this proposed bill, users not engaged in any other type of illegal conduct would face mandatory felony prosecution for possessing even minuscule amounts of certain substances.

In spite of what the attorney general is telling legislators, a felony conviction is a serious matter with lifelong consequences that disrupt people’s lives long after they’ve entered recovery. Felony convictions are rarely expunged, and would require a governor’s pardon to do so.

“Addiction should be treated by health care professionals rather than the criminal justice system and, as a taxpayer and citizen of Maine, I would prefer our tax dollars go to prevention, treatment and recovery, rather than mounting costly felony prosecutions against the users actively facing addiction,” says Chris Poulos of Yarmouth, a person in long-term recovery who overcame addiction and federal incarceration to attend law school and work on criminal justice policy reform at the local, state and federal levels.

Last month, during her annual State of the Judiciary address, Chief Justice Leigh Saufley called on lawmakers to take new approaches to respond to the state’s growing opiate addiction crisis. Maine must move away from the failed policies of the drug war that filled up our prisons and embrace new ideas like law enforcement-assisted diversion programs that have been proven to make a positive impact in getting folks the help they need while also making our communities safer.

In 2015, Maine took a sensible, and much-needed, approach to dealing with drug use by enacting legislation that defelonized simple possession of small amounts of drugs.

For first-time offenders, a judge would have the discretion to consider imposing a sentencing alternative that includes medical and mental health treatment for addiction, when appropriate.

By making drug possession a felony offense, legislators would be making it harder for people with drug problems to get treatment and reintegrate into society.

People with felony convictions are commonly discriminated against in employment and housing and can be denied many public benefits. Problematic drug use is best dealt with in the public health system, and L.D. 1554 must be defeated for the good of Maine.

While the legislators behind this bill may have good intentions, the effects of this bill would, in essence, be supporting the same misguided ideas that Gov. LePage proposed in a racial tirade during a town hall meeting this year when asked about substance abuse. Continuing to criminalize drug users serves only to exacerbate the problem and fails to humanize the folks who need assistance.

As my colleague Sharda Sekaran wrote in a piece rebutting LePage’s remarks: “There is no place for bigotry and fear in alleviating the dangers that can come with drug use and the illegal drug trade. What we need are smart, sensible, visionary leaders, not the antiquated racist views that got us in this mess in the first place.” LD 1554 is a continuation of failed drug war policies and must be defeated.

— Special to the Press Herald

Updated at 8:48 a.m. on April 1, 2016 to make the description of the legislation consistent with the amended version of the bill under consideration this week.


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