Maine residents strongly support drug treatment policies and decriminalization of “non-violent, low-level” drug offenses, according to survey results released Tuesday by the University of Maine.

The survey was conducted in 2021 and asked 417 registered voters a series of questions on drug policies. The margin of error of the scientific, online survey was 4.8 percent.

“There is a real hunger for real sweeping reforms in ways that even surprised us,” Robert Glover, associate professor of political science and honors at the University of Maine, said during a conference call with reporters. Glover and Karyn Sporer, associate professor of sociology at the University of Maine, were the lead researchers in the study.

Glover said the overwhelmingly positive responses to prioritizing treatment approaches contrast with the “relatively cautious approach adopted by our state lawmakers.” For instance, 73 percent of respondents supported decriminalization of “non-violent, low-level” drug offenses.

A bill in the Maine Legislature this spring would have decriminalized possession for personal use for drugs such as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines. The bill passed the House, but failed in the Senate, and was opposed by the Mills administration. Possession would have resulted in a civil, rather than criminal, penalty.

During an April 30 committee hearing, Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, noted the bill did not say how much someone could possess without facing criminal charges.

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“Decriminalization of these drugs sends a mixed message that fails to recognize how damaging these drugs are, and normalizes their possession,” McKinney said.

But Courtney Gary-Allen, Maine Recovery Advocacy Project’s organizing director, said Tuesday that when she was advocating for the bill, some lawmakers told her they believed decriminalizing would be unpopular, while the survey shows the opposite is true.

“A lot of the rhetoric was grounded in that their constituents wouldn’t go along with this, and that is just fundamentally untrue,” Gary-Allen said.

Meanwhile, other measures to put people on the path to recovery were popular, according to the survey.

More than 84 percent of survey respondents supported establishing detox services in all Maine counties, and a nearly identical percentage supported reducing barriers to substance use treatment. Seventy-seven percent supported providing medication-assisted treatment – such as Suboxone and methadone – in all Maine counties.

“Political rhetoric and policy positions rooted in stigmatization and dehumanization of those with substance use disorder are increasingly at odds with the evolving perspectives of the Maine electorate,” the researchers wrote.

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However, there was far less support for certain harm-reduction strategies such as syringe exchange programs and safe injection sites. Maine has a syringe exchange program, but does not have any safe injection sites. Only 32 percent supported safe injection sites, while 49 percent favored syringe exchange programs.

Sporer said the safe injection question was “by far the most controversial question that we asked” and that voters still questioned whether it was morally appropriate for the state to approve safe injection and syringe exchange programs.

Maine has expanded its syringe exchange programs, and now has 14 sites across the state where people with substance use disorder can drop off used syringes and get new ones. The Mills administration has opposed the creation of safe injection sites.

Glover said the opioid crisis – which has resulted in thousands of deaths, including a record 636 overdose fatalities in 2021 – has raised awareness among the public and helped reduce stigma, because people know friends, neighbors and relatives affected by the crisis. There were 266 fatal overdoses through May 2022 in Maine, compared to 244 through the same period in 2021.

“All Mainers are being affected by this, and that is driving more people to see this as a public health issue rather than a criminal justice issue,” Glover said.


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