A pair of state organizations said Monday that Maine should decriminalize drug use and possession, and that the millions of dollars the state spends to incarcerate drug offenders would be better spent on treating them.

The Maine Center for Economic Policy and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine discussed findings from their new report “A Better Path for Maine: The Case for Decriminalizing Drugs,” at a news conference Monday.

The report’s central recommendation is for Maine to decriminalize drugs while moving toward and investing in proven, cost-effective public health approaches to drug use.

“Maine spends $111 million per year to punish people for using drugs,” Maine ACLU and the economic policy center said in a news release. “The return on this investment: record shattering overdose deaths, thousands of people held back from reaching their full potential because of criminal records, widespread constitutional violations, disrupted lives and disrupted communities.”

A spokesperson for the Maine Department of Public Safety said Monday night that the agency would need time to review the report’s findings. Attempts to reach the newly elected president of the Maine Sheriff’s Association were unsuccessful late Monday.

“In addition to the very real toll that the war on drugs inflicts on Mainers’ physical and mental wellbeing, collectively we pay millions of dollars each year in financial costs,” James Myall, economic policy analyst for the economic policy center, said in a statement. “Year over year, Maine has prioritized incarcerating and criminalizing people who use drugs over making treatment for drug use more available. Not only is this approach ineffective, but it’s extremely costly.”


Maine wastes an enormous amount of money to incarcerate people for drug use, the report said. It costs $54,300 a year to house an inmate at a state prison, more than twice what it would cost to provide housing, weekly counseling and medication-assisted treatment for a year under current Maine Care reimbursement rates, the report said.

The report contends that the legal system “is not the appropriate setting for what is fundamentally a matter of public health.” The current system gives law enforcement “inappropriate power over people’s health care decisions.”

“A majority of people in Maine support removing criminal penalties for those who use drugs,” said Meagan Sway, policy director at the ACLU of Maine. “This is a move that Maine is ready for, and as the report shows, it is a necessary move to end the harms of criminalization.”

Winifred Tate, an associate professor of anthropology and director of the Maine Drug Policy Lab at Colby College, is the report’s lead author.

“There is a clear consensus for a public health approach to address the needs of people with substance use disorder. It is time to ensure our policies center and support that approach,” Tate said. “In order to do so, we must decriminalize the possession and use of drugs in our state and invest in our communities.”

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