The criminal justice system has for decades now played a central role in addressing addiction in our communities. On any measurable scale, it has failed.

A woman regains consciousness in 2015 after Portland paramedics administered the overdose antidote Narcan. Maine saw 502 fatal overdoses in 2020, surpassing the previous high of 417 deaths in 2017, which at the time was considered to be the height of the opioid crisis.  Derek Davis/Staff Photographer, File

Charging and incarcerating people with substance use disorder has turned sick people into criminals. It has ruined hopes of stable housing and gainful employment. To those laid low by trauma and disconnection, it has added more.

At the same time, drugs are more plentiful and stronger than ever. More people are dying than ever.

It’s not working. It’s costing lives. It must change.

L.D. 967, now before the Legislature, would make the possession of scheduled drugs for personal use a civil violation, with a fine of not more than $100. In lieu of payment, the defendant can instead undergo an evidence-based assessment for substance use disorder.

Under this bill, anyone caught with a small amount of a scheduled drug would be pointed toward treatment, not a cell.


Why? Because if someone has a problem with substance use, they won’t find the help they need in jail, where they are isolated from family and community, and addiction treatment and other health care are spotty at best.

Instead, jail ensures a criminal record that must be explained on every application for housing, education and employment, making it exceedingly difficult to get a foothold back in society.

Jail, too, makes worse the problems of mental health, neglect and trauma that often lead to substance misuse. And it rarely improves things; those recently released from incarceration are at an extremely high risk of overdose.

And if it’s a parent who is incarcerated, those problems are easily passed on to the next generation.

Incarcerating people who suffer from a clear, though complex, health problem is simply not resolving that health problem. Here and there, there are stories of people shocked into sobriety by the threat of jail. But those are the exceptions – the criminal justice system more often than not pulls people in and doesn’t let go.

In Maine, 1 in every 10 arrests is related to drugs. Harsh laws have given law enforcement and courts for years the ability to arrest and prosecute people for having just a small amount of narcotics.


And yet the drug problem continues to ruin lives on a wide scale.

A response to addiction with the criminal justice system at the center is not working. It will never work.

Instead, Maine needs to put substance use disorder treatment first, so that it is available to everyone who wants it, along with other supports for people in recovery, including housing. Harm reduction services are necessary to keep people alive in the meantime.

Together, we need to find where communities have frayed and fix them, so that their members are resilient.

Poverty, abuse, trauma, disconnection – those are the enemies, not our neighbors struggling with addiction.

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