Maine: Considering Legislation Increasing Drug Penalties, Escalating Drug War

EndTheDrugWarNow[TheFreeThoughtProject]

Advocates Say Increasing Penalties Will Frighten People Away from Seeking Treatment, Increase Incarceration, and Exacerbate Racial Disparities and the “New Jim Crow”

The Maine Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on Wednesday held a hearing on legislation backed by the Attorney General that could roll back groundbreaking reforms passed last session that reduced drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor.

The proposed legislation (LD 1554) would make possession of 30 milligrams (often less than one single pill) or more of prescription opioids and any amount of certain other drugs into felony offenses, continuing the criminalization of drug users and wasting scarce resources on incarceration instead of treatment and prevention.

Under this proposed bill, users not engaged in any other type of illegal conduct would face mandatory felony prosecution for possessing even minuscule amounts of certain substances.

“Addiction should be treated by healthcare professionals rather than the criminal justice system and, as a taxpayer and citizen of Maine, I would prefer our tax dollars go to prevention, treatment, and recovery, rather than mounting costly felony prosecutions against the users actively facing addiction,” said Chris Poulos, a person in long term recovery who overcame addiction and federal incarceration to attend law school and work on criminal justice policy reform at the local, state, and federal levels.

In 2015, Maine enacted legislation that defelonized simple possession of small amounts of drugs. For first-time offenders, a judge would have the discretion to consider imposing a sentencing alternative that includes medical and mental health treatment for addiction, when appropriate.

Advocates say criminalizing drug use and arresting drug users fails to make our communities safer and does nothing to ensure problematic drug users receive the treatment they need.

By making drug possession a felony offense legislators would be making it harder for people with drug problems to get treatment and reintegrate into society. People with felony convictions are commonly discriminated against in employment and housing and can be denied many public benefits.

At a time when nearly every state in the country has enacted some degree of harm reduction legislation-including Maine -- like access to life-saving naloxone, an anti-overdose antidote, and Good Samaritan laws that encourage folks to call 911 when witnessing an overdose by offering varying level of immunity -- it is incredibly discouraging to see Maine attempt to take a huge step backward in dealing with drug use, according to the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA).

“We cannot arrest our away out of the heroin epidemic,” said Jerónimo Saldaña, legislative and organizing coordinator in the Office of National Affairs at the DPA. "Criminalizing drug use only serves to exacerbate the problem and waste valuable resources that could be better used to provide treatment for those who need it."

Although rates of drug use and selling are comparable across racial lines, people of color are far more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted, convicted and incarcerated for drug law violations than are whites. “LD 1554 will potentially exacerbate the criminalization of communities of color and must be defeated,” Saldaña said.

Graphic: The Free Thought Project