Maine Lawmakers Consider Major Drug Reform Bill, as Advocates and Health Experts Rally in Support

Legislative committee holds hearing on LD 967, a bill that would make minor drug possession for personal use a civil offense and offer a pathway to recovery

Affiliate: ACLU of Maine
April 30, 2021 1:00 pm

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Advocates, including lawmakers, doctors, harm reduction service providers and people in recovery, are testifying at today’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee hearing in support of LD 967, a bill that would end criminal penalties for minor drug possession and offer a pathway to recovery.

In a virtual press conference before the hearing, advocates shared a growing consensus from the legal, medical, policy and recovery communities that removing criminal penalties for drug use could help the state reduce record overdose deaths and invest in proven recovery and harm reduction resources. Speakers included the bill’s sponsor Rep. Anne Perry (Calais), Rep. Genevieve McDonald (Stonington), Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross (Portland), and representatives from the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project the Maine Center for Economic Policy, the Health Equity Alliance, the Church of Safe Injection and the ACLU of Maine.

Last year was the deadliest yet for overdose deaths in Maine – with more than 500 Mainers losing their lives. If LD 967 is passed, people who are found carrying small quantities of drugs for personal use would be given the option to pay a fine or have a health assessment, creating one more pathway to recovery from substance use disorder.

“It is the repeated offers of help by a trusted health care provider that allows patients eventually take on their substance use disorder,” said Rep. Anne Perry, drawing on her decades of experience as a nurse practitioner working to help people quit smoking. “It is no different for people with opioid or other substance use disorders. It is time for us to treat drug addiction the way we treat other addictions, and not like a moral failing that only jail or prison can fix.”

Drug arrests in Maine have increased over the last decade and accounted for almost nine percent of all arrests in 2018 – yet overdose death rates in the state continue to rise. Incarceration is associated with higher rates of premature deaths caused by infectious diseases, substance use, and suicide.

Marshall Mercer, an organizer with Maine Recovery Advocacy Project, recalled being incarcerated at the Northern Maine Juvenile Detention Facility (NMJDF) when he was 16 years old, and how it derailed his life.

“I keep thinking instead of NMJDF, what if I had gotten some sort of treatment, how would my life have looked?” Mercer said. “Would I have still gotten my chance at a scholarship to any institution that had a baseball team? Would my friends have followed me to the bottom of the ninth, instead of following me to the bottom of a grave?”

A recording of the press conference may be viewed here.

The following statements can be attributed as noted:

Courtney Allen, Policy Director at Maine Recovery Advocacy Project (MERAP)

“In 2018, we arrested 1,720 people for drug possession, a symptom of their disease, when they should have been offered access to treatment and recovery support services. Because that is what we know works. Incarceration does not work. Even brief periods of arrest and incarceration destabilize an individual’s life, including their health, housing, employment, and connection to community. These are the same four pillars that Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration identifies as the keystones to sustained recovery. By incarcerating people for substance use, a symptom of their disease, we are not supporting recovery – we are creating barriers to it.”

Nick Gallagher, addiction medicine physician

“On a daily basis in this work, I hear a staggering amount of stories of neglect, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, as well as a general lack of support and resources. Shifting time, energy, and resources away from incarceration for simple drug possession and investing in treatment and recovery options will give our community members, our fellow Mainers, the best chance for success.”

Rep. Genevieve McDonald (Stonington)

“We all know someone who is struggling with addiction. Many of us know someone who has died as the result of a drug overdose, know families who have lost a loved one, or experienced that grief ourselves. People who are battling addiction deserve compassion and hope. They deserve effective policies that will not create barriers to their recovery and future success. They deserve effective strategies that will keep them alive until they can receive treatment. This change is what Maine needs to save the lives of our friends, our neighbors, and our loved ones.”

Kari Morissette, Executive Director of the Church of Safe Injection

“I was lucky enough to find recovery. But not everyone is so lucky. For those people that find recovery after our addiction, we still have many barriers. Although I am a very active member in the harm reduction and recovery community, I still have a lot of barriers in my personal life. I am 28-time convicted felon and 23 of those are for simple drug possession. It makes it hard to get an apartment and looking for jobs is not easy. If one law enforcement officer would’ve referred me to treatment, it could’ve saved me a lot of pain.”

James Myall, Policy Analyst at the Maine Center for Economic Policy (MECEP)

“MECEP supports LD 967 because the current approach of criminalizing substance use isn’t working. Our current approach places a huge burden on Mainers, especially Mainers of color, and prevents them from thriving economically. What’s more, from an economist’s perspective, criminalizing people who use drugs is an inefficient use of state resources. The state spends tens of thousands of dollars each year to incarcerate an individual; resources which would be much more effective applied to other methods.”

Whitney Parrish, Director of Advocacy and Communications, Health Equity Alliance (HEAL)

“Harm reduction recognizes that when you treat someone as a member of the community, as someone deserving of what others have, you start seeing them make positive changes in their lives that increase their health and improve their situation. You start seeing the power of community, connection, and what happens when we choose compassion over shame and punishment. That’s what LD 967 is all about, and it’s what all Maine people deserve.”

Meagan Sway, Policy Director at the ACLU of Maine:

“Decades of experience have made clear that we cannot arrest and punish our way out of a public health crisis. We’ve been wasting resources arresting and incarcerating people, without investing in the options that would make them whole and healthy in their communities. This has created one of the biggest civil liberties disasters of our time.”

Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross (Portland)

“The stigma of drug use and the lifelong consequences of criminal charges disproportionately harm low-income people and people who are Black, Indigenous and people of color. Those most affected are our friends, our family members, our neighbors. They are members of our community, and none of us benefit when we try to arrest and incarcerate our way out of this. Instead, we need a response grounded in compassion, care and wellbeing. Passing this bill, LD 967, is one significant step in that direction.”

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