Each of us has been a police officer for over 40 years; now we serve proudly as the chiefs, respectively, of the Scarborough and Bridgton departments. Like most police officers, we got into this job because we truly wanted to help people, and that’s what’s kept us in it for so long.

But we also know that law enforcement is not the answer to all of society’s problems. For example, we don’t turn to the criminal justice system to address hunger or flu outbreaks. Yet for some reason, it is the approach we have chosen for addressing drug use. Time and again, we assume that jailing people for using or selling a small quantity of drugs will fix the problem.

Sometimes that might be true. For some people, getting arrested is just the wake-up call they need to get clean. But for every success story of someone turning his or her life around in jail, there are many more people who are not so lucky.

That’s because incarcerating people simply doesn’t get at the root of why people use drugs. So many people who struggle with addiction today got there because of circumstances hard for most of us to imagine – facing poverty, homelessness or pain, they didn’t see another way out.

Sometimes, going to jail can actually make it harder for people to stay sober down the line. While incarcerated they are separated from their support systems. And after release, they face barriers to finding work and housing – the very things people need to lead fulfilling lives and stay in recovery.

The fact is, a lot of people who are in jail for using or selling small amounts of drugs don’t need to be there. They are people with addiction who are just trying to survive, not kingpins making a profit. Yet we treat them all the same way – we slap them with a felony, put them in jail and ignore the underlying causes that got them there in the first place.

Maine is experiencing a heroin problem of near-epidemic proportions, and the number of Mainers dying from overdose is once again on the rise. While the impulse may be to arrest more people and get them off the streets, we think it is time to admit that what we are doing is not working. We need another approach to help our community and save lives.

Most importantly, we have got to stop looking at drug use and addiction as a personal failing or as a criminal act to be punished. We should prioritize building a system in which help is there for every person who seeks it – not only treatment beds, but also housing and health care and the community support that makes recovery possible.

And we should be increasing Maine towns’ participation in programs like Law Enforcement-Assisted Diversion (LEAD), where officers have the discretion to divert people caught with small amounts of drugs out of the criminal justice system before they are ever arrested.

These reforms may sound expensive, but the fact is, incarcerating people is expensive, too. The money we spend cycling the same people in and out of jail over and over would be much more effective if we spent it to keep them out of jail in the first place.

And it’s not just the financial resources that would be better spent elsewhere – police want to spend their time and energy focused on serious crimes and threats to public safety, not arresting the same low-level drug users over and over again.

The United States has been waging a war on drugs for nearly 50 years, and it has done little to decrease drug use. We think it’s time for law enforcement, legislators and communities to work together for a system that actually makes our communities safer. We hope legislators agree.


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