Substance use is a public health issue that affects people of all races, genders, ages, education and socioeconomic statuses. Beyond the general population, this disease has implications for families as it destabilizes our communities’ family units and, left untreated, puts future generations at risk through genetic and environmental transmission.

For the individual, education and professional status do not protect against substance use. The disease affects nurses, pharmacists, physicians, dentists, veterinarians, teachers, engineers, lawyers, police officers, judges and legislators – substance use affects all. Professional organizations understand this, and, accordingly, have prioritized employee retention and support through access to necessary treatment. This public health approach should be offered to all, regardless of an individual’s resources or professional affiliation.

We know that people who use drugs often do so with the hope to escape mental, emotional and physical pain. Despite being a diagnosable disease, substance use disorders are not publicly discussed in the same manner as other chronic diseases, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer. This stigma unfairly silences individuals and families living with this disease. An undeniable contributor to this stigma is the criminalization of the disease.

Criminalizing this disease has marginalized many, while unsuccessfully reducing drug use, deaths and crime. Consistently, data have shown that treating substance use as a health issue, rather than a criminal issue, helps to keep communities healthy and safe. Professional organizations understand this; our public policies desperately need to catch up. In Maine, every life is valuable, and every Mainer deserves access to evidence-based health care.

Jill Vaughn
South Portland

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