It is an accepted and hard-earned fact that treating substance use disorder as a crime is no solution to a crisis that continues to kill more than one Mainer a day. Thankfully, more and more, that reality is reflected in state policy.

Unfortunately, in some cases, the law is doing more harm than good.

In Maine, the amounts of narcotics that trigger felony possession and trafficking are far lower than most other states. Unlike most states, prosecutors don’t even have to prove a defendant’s intent to distribute to gain a trafficking conviction – the amount, around what people may use in a day, is enough. Possession of even smaller amounts can become a felony if a person has prior misdemeanor convictions. Possession of a small amount of hypodermic needles, too, is a felony.

So while it’s easy and comforting to think that these laws are holding accountable drug kingpins for bringing poison into our communities, the truth of the matter is much different. More often, these laws are brought to bear on people who have drugs and needles because they are personally addicted. If they are caught multiple times with drugs, it’s often because they can’t get by without them.

Placing the weight of a felony conviction on them will not get them any closer to recovery. For a few, that threat may be the wake-up call they need. But for most, the conviction becomes a barrier to getting well, making it more difficult for them to find the stable employment and housing they need.

Harsh laws like these destabilize whole families, too, and add to the growing burden on the child welfare system. They are one factor in the rising number of incarcerated women in Maine, and one reason county jails are struggling.

There are other consequences too. Criminalizing needles makes it more likely that someone will re-use or share needles, and thus more likely they will contract infections. In Maine, which has one of the highest rates of hepatitis C in the country, those infections have been costly, both to the individuals and to the health care system.

L.D. 1492, a bill carried over from the first legislative session, addresses these problems. It would raise thresholds for felony possession and trafficking, and make prosecutors prove intent with trafficking charges. It would decriminalize possession of needles and small amounts of narcotics.

In its empathy for people dealing with addiction, and its embrace of evidence-based practices and the realities of substance use, the bill is in line with other reforms the Mills administration has made. Gov. Mills has increased access to treatment and to  naloxone, the overdose-reversing drug. She has expanded needle-exchange programs.

Given time and resources, that approach will work. The harsh drug laws on the books in Maine simply do not make sense alongside it.

This article was edited on Jan. 28, 2020 to correct its description of the effect of L.D. 1492.


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