“They are dying in the potato fields of Aroostook County and the lobster-fishing harbors Down East. They are dying in the western Maine foothills where paper mill closures have sown economic anxiety. They are dying in cities like Portland and Augusta and in the affluent suburbs, where heroin is plentiful.”

I remember exactly where I was when I read the opening lines of “Lost,” the Press Herald’s special report on the opioid epidemic in Maine. I was sitting on a bench in the Guitar Center in South Portland while my then-boyfriend looked at instruments. It was a long time ago. My dad was still alive then. A lot of people were still alive then.

Published in early 2017, the “Lost” report personalized the devastation that had come with the death toll the previous year. Behind every number is a real, complex, complete human life, cut short, often in their prime. In 2016, we lost 376 Mainers to overdose. Now, we’re near six years later, and the numbers keep going up, and up. In 2018, 354. In 2019, 380. In 2020, 502 deaths. In 2021, 631. And last year, in 2022, 716 of us died from drug overdose.

I say “us” because those 716 Mainers died from a chronic disease that I also live with every day: addiction. It could just as easily have been me. I think that every time I read an obituary where the cause of death is addiction. There are two reasons I share my own struggles with alcoholism so openly and aggressively. One is personal accountability. If, God forbid, I relapse and belly up to a bar, maybe someone will recognize me from the paper and say, “Hey, you aren’t supposed to be here, are you?” And the second reason is that I hope that someone, somewhere, will take the empathy that they feel reading about my addiction and apply it to others. There’s nothing special about me. I am no more or less deserving of love and care than any other person with addiction.

I hate to trot out that trite quote about the definition of insanity, but the steadily increasing deaths are the worst possible confirmation that our current methods are not working. We are making progress in recognizing that addiction is a disease, and not a moral failing – I think most people would agree with me there. We, as a state, have to change our approach.

We can either punish people who use drugs or we can keep them alive. Maine cannot do both. I think we need to decriminalize drugs for personal use. I know this seems crazy, and will probably make a lot of people uncomfortable. But think about it. Is arresting the same people for possession time and time again really helping? It’s clearly not. The gravestones should be proof enough.


Overdoses don’t have to be fatal if the patient gets proper medical attention in time. Narcan and CPR at the scene and quick transport to a hospital can keep them alive. But if nobody is around to call 911 and do chest compressions, we lose another Mainer. Think of it this way – how many times have you arranged for a designated driver before a night out, or kept an eye on a drunk friend? Would you have done it if there was a chance the cops would show up, arrest you and put you in jail, where you would then experience the worst flu of your life (aka withdrawal symptoms)?

I’m not saying we should have complete lawless anarchy like in those “Purge” movies. I’m just saying, what good is it to arrest people for drug possession? It’s not working.

They’re still dying. We’re still dying. If it’s not a crime, people will be more likely to reach out for help, or at least ask a friend to come keep an eye on them if they get a sketchy baggie from a new dealer. If we decriminalize personal drug use, it will remove a huge barrier to harm reduction centers or safe-injection sites, which have been used with success in several places.

In 2021, for example, a pair of overdose prevention centers opened in New York City. These are places where people with addiction can use drugs (that they have procured themselves elsewhere) with medical supervision. Safe injection supplies are on hand (but again, not drugs themselves) as well as staff, who not only make sure anyone with a bad batch of heroin gets immediate Narcan and medical help but also offer resources to mental health and substance abuse treatment. In their first year of operation, they reversed more than 600 overdoses.

Even if you don’t care about the lives saved, think of how much money could be saved by preventing infections such as endocarditis and HIV that spread through contaminated needles. If you don’t like seeing people use drugs in public parks (and who does?), wouldn’t it be good for them to have somewhere safe to go?

I get that these ideas all sound new and scary. But what we are doing right now is. Not. Working.

All the war on drugs has done is create body counts similar to that of an actual war. You can’t declare “war” on drugs. Drugs are inanimate piles of chemicals. They only become an issue when they are introduced to people. So the “war on drugs” is really a war on people.

Victoria Hugo-Vidal is a Maine millennial. She can be contacted at:
Twitter: @mainemillennial

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