Imagine what the COVID response might have looked like if it had been run by the police.

Would there have been undercover sting operations designed to catch people socializing outside their bubbles?

Would there have been highway checkpoints, where drivers had to prove they had a sense of smell?

Would people have been taken into custody for sniffling in public?

But COVID is an infectious disease, not a crime wave, and the response was run by doctors and scientists whose goal was slowing the spread of the virus and saving lives.

It’s so different from how we handle the drug overdose scourge, which is still killing 10 Mainers a week.

We call it a public health crisis and describe it with words like “disease” and “epidemic,” but we still treat the people who are infected as criminals.

It’s not the cops’ fault. In 2016, with the LePage administration either ignoring the growing toll of overdose deaths or actively interfering with life-saving strategies, like the distribution of the overdose antidote naloxone, Maine police stepped up.

When Scarborough Police Chief Robbie Moulton started Operation HOPE, which gave amnesty to drug users who wanted to go into treatment, or then-Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said, “We can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” it changed the way a lot of people thought about the drug problem. They were leaders. They saved lives.

But five years into this crisis, Maine is still arresting 1,500 people a year for drug possession, which, depending on the amount, can be a felony. The overdose deaths are just the most visible part of a problem that has dug its roots into every Maine community and possibly every Maine family.

A bill before the Legislature could change that. L.D. 967, would make most drug possession charges civil infractions rather than crimes. When caught, people could choose to pay a fine or submit to a health screening that could lead them into treatment.

It would be a radical change, especially when you think about what happens now when someone goes to jail for drugs.

Their families are disrupted, children lose a father or a mother. If they had a job, it’s probably lost. And they may also not have housing when they get out.

Forced abstinence in jail doesn’t cure their disorder, but it does lower tolerance, which is part of the reason why a shocking number of fatal overdoses occur right after a release.

Having a felony drug conviction on their record will make it that much harder to get another job or an apartment, and harder to build a drug-free life.

The threat of arrest might be even worse for the ones who don’t get caught. To avoid attention, they are using in places where they won’t be seen and where an overdose is more likely to be fatal because there’s no one around to call 911.

This isn’t how we treat people who are sick with cancer or diabetes. It’s not even how we treat people who are addicted to cigarettes, alcohol, gambling or pornography.

But more than five years into this crisis, we still haven’t come to grips with what a real public health approach would look like to battle this thing we have been calling an epidemic.

What is the source of disease? It’s not the drugs themselves. We have seen what happened when the flow of prescription painkillers onto the black market was stanched by regulation: Users switched to heroin, or methamphetamine, or fentanyl or whatever became available.

Drug use disorder is often found alongside untreated mental illnesses that can be traced back to early childhood. Childhood trauma, including abuse and neglect, opens the door to lifelong consequences, including a higher likelihood of addiction.

Programs that support families with stable housing, living wages and access to health care – including mental health – might save the next generation from this calamity.

But throwing parents in jail now is the wrong way to stop a disease from spreading.

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