Our View: The Issue at the Heart of Maine’s Overdose Epidemic


What do you get out of a drug arrest?

Ultimately, this is the question at the center of the debate about how we should deal with addiction and the horrific overdose epidemic it has caused. Rather than continuing to do what has brought us to this point, we need to ask ourselves: what do we gain, as a society and as individuals, when someone is arrested for a drug-related offence?

For many people, it’s an easy question: a drug arrest protects us. It takes drugs off the streets, discourages drug use and punishes those who break the law.

It’s how, through federal, state and local policy, the United States has tried to stop drugs from destroying lives – and we’ve been doing it for so long now that it may seem like the only way. to do.

But it’s not. There are other ways to treat drug use.

In Portugal, where injecting drug use caused widespread illness, death and incarceration, does this sound familiar? — Possession of small amounts of drugs was decriminalized in 2001. Selling or dealing drugs remains illegal, but people caught simply using drugs are referred to advice or treatment, sometimes accompanied by a fine or community service.

As a result, incarcerations have declined, as have HIV infection rates. Overdose rates there have remained low even though they have risen sharply across Europe and the United States

Oregon passed similar legislation in 2020, and it is starting to show results.

A drug decriminalization bill also passed the Maine House of Representatives last year, but failed in the Senate.

It should be the start of something, not the end. In Portugal, and now Oregon, money once spent on law enforcement and incarceration has been shifted to treatment. With the reduction in the stigma associated with drug use, more people were willing to seek help.

It could happen in Maine too.

According to a new report from the Maine Chapter of the ACLU and the Maine Center for Economic Policy, state and local governments here are spending $111 million to arrest and incarcerate people who use drugs. About one in 11 arrests are drug-related, and these are not pivotal: nearly three-quarters of drug arrests are for possession.

These arrests don’t get us anywhere either. The incarceration of low level addicts does nothing to reduce the overall drug supply, nor does it convince others to stop using – supply and demand are determined by much larger factors. Instead, in most cases, it makes overcoming the addiction more difficult.

And incarceration doesn’t keep us much safer – after decades of treating drug use as a crime, drugs have never been more prevalent, or more deadly.

But still, out of habit if nothing else, our society overemphasizes the power of a drug arrest. You can see it in the debate over the Good Samaritan Bill, where opponents don’t want to give up the chance to arrest someone, even if it might save a life.

But not every case of drug use should be prosecuted. Most of the time, there is very little harm. The vast majority of people who try an illicit drug do so for recreational purposes. they don’t become addicted and eventually quit on their own.

For most drug addicts, the only law they break is drug use. The vast majority never do anything to hurt anyone else as a result of their use. So what do we get from their arrest?

Why should we spend so much money and effort trying to punish them, when it could help those in need?

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