I live with substance use disorder. Because of this, I ended up in jail, away from my kids when they were just 4 and 6 and really needed their dad. That year, I missed Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s and their birthdays.

Everyone struggles with different things in our lives, but we all want to take care of our families and loved ones, especially when they’re sick or in pain. We want to do what works to help them – not make them suffer more.

Most of us know someone who’s been directly affected by substance use disorder or drug use. Drug overdoses killed more than 500 people in Maine last year. That’s 500 mothers, fathers, daughters and sons. Family providers. Hopes for the future. And so many of those people would not have died if we didn’t treat people who use drugs as criminals.

I remember feeling like I had failed my family. They watched me get taken away from the house in handcuffs. And when they wanted to see me, they had to go to the parking lot across the street from the jail, and I met them at the window. I lost my home, and my kids had to move in with their grandmother.

I’ve been around addiction my whole life, starting with my mom selling drugs to get by. And although I managed to stay away from drugs for a long time, I eventually fell into drug use and drinking and, after a work injury, opioid use.

I did things when I was drinking and using drugs that I’m not proud of. But making me a criminal didn’t help me change my behavior. It was connections with my family and friends that helped me change.

There are three bills right now in the Maine Legislature that would help people with substance use disorders and their families and would change Maine’s drug laws so that people who use drugs but don’t sell them won’t get thrown in jail. These measures –  L.D. 967, LR 1817 and L.D. 994 – also give more people a path to treatment, and make it so people who use syringes are less likely to get sick. That means more people who are well, more people who get treatment and more people who get to see their kids grow up.

Maine’s harsh drug laws lock away our friends, neighbors and family members when they’re sick. It’s wrong. And it doesn’t just hurt the person who goes to prison or jail: When you send a dad or a mom away from their kids, those kids pay the price. They lose a parent while they’re growing up, and they’re much more likely than other kids to be poorer, hungrier, not have a stable place to live and struggle later.

And when a person comes out of jail with a felony conviction on their record, it follows them for the rest of their life – and can make it really hard to find work and a place to live. People with substance use disorders are also in serious danger of relapse or overdose – and death – when they are released.

When you get arrested for using drugs, you get locked up like an animal, in a place where you can be beaten up, or killed, and where drugs are easy to get. When I was in jail, I needed help – not punishment and neglect. It’s the simplest thing. It doesn’t make sense that they would just throw someone in jail and leave them on their own. You can at least give someone the option of treatment first.

We are starting to see substance use disorder for what it is: a health issue. We should focus on treatment and recovery. When we do that, we can make sure our loved ones have access to health care and a chance to get treatment. And we know that when we focus on treatment, everyone is safer.

Healthy adults? Families together? Kids growing up with their parents? I think we can all support that.


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