It is the tragic irony of the criminal justice system that it takes people dealing with a disease that requires treatment and community connection – and puts them in jail or prison, where they have neither.

Things have gotten better in recent years as more people have accepted the absurdity of punishing substance use disorder rather than treating it. Law enforcement has in many cases led this change, creating and supporting programs that divert people with addiction to treatment programs rather than the courts.

But Maine jails and prisons are still crowded with people there only because they are addicted to drugs. While incarcerated, there is little hope that they will be allowed to address the problem that put them there, and once out – still addicted, but now with a criminal record, and without employment or housing – they are worse off than before.

The prioritizing of incarceration over treatment has been profoundly counterproductive for the individual and expensive for taxpayers. It has prolonged and intensified the drug epidemic. It has made us no safer.

Maine can take a step away from that mistake with L.D. 1492, which would relax or eliminate provisions in the law regarding drug trafficking, furnishing and possession, as well as possession of drug paraphrenalia.

As it is now, all it takes is a small amount of a controlled substance to be charged with a felony. Amounts well within the range of personal use can be basis for trafficking or furnishing charges.

These strict laws, mirrored just about everywhere else in the United States, form the backbone of the failed war on drugs. They’ve encouraged vast numbers of drug arrests, which have filled jails and prisons but made little difference otherwise in the big picture – drugs are stronger and more available, addiction is soaring, recidivism is high.

And they’ve caused great personal harm in the meantime. Medication-assisted treatment is proven to help people with substance use disorder, but it is only sparingly available to people who are incarcerated.

Instead, they are forced to detoxify without support, then released without addressing the underlying causes of addiction. Most go right back to using; many overdose, having lessened their tolerance to the drug.

Meanwhile, they’ve also likely lost their job and housing. They’ve been separated from the good influences of family and community, and subjected to the bad influences of incarceration.

That’s not good for anyone. In fact, it helps perpetuate the drug crisis, allowing it to grab people and hold on. It pushes the ripples of the epidemic out further – more people with criminal records, more demand for drugs, more overdoses, more foster kids, more homeless.

The Office of the Attorney General and the state’s district attorneys agree with many of the provisions in the bill, but say some go too far. L.D. 1492 does make major changes to criminal law governing drug possession and trafficking, so some debate over the size of that shift makes sense.

But lawmakers shouldn’t be afraid to make substantial changes to laws that have been a failure. They shouldn’t be afraid to abandon a legal theory that has been proved wrong beyond the shadow of a doubt.


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