This Friday at the State House, the Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety will have a work session on LD 113, An Act to Reduce the Penalties for Certain Drug Offenses. The bill is sponsored by Senator Roger Katz of Kennebec. The bill, in part, looks to downgrade punishments associated with possession of heroin and methamphetamine, two drugs that have been especially problematic in Maine. The bill would downgrade possession of these Class W drugs from a Class C Felony crime to a Class D Misdemeanor crime. Class D crimes come with a maximum 364 days in jail while Class C felonies come with up to 5 year prison terms. The bill also downgrades other penalties including possession of hypodermic needles. While it has support from many organizations, some reporting suggests the bill faces opposition from the Governor as well as some in law enforcement.
From my perspective, this truly is a smart approach to dealing with substance abuse in Maine. Senator Katz has stressed that the aim of this bill is to deal with those addicted to these drugs, not those dealing the drugs. Those who are trafficking drugs in our communities, dealing to kids, strict penalties are still quite appropriate for them. This is an important distinction and one we must continue to work on as a state. Drug addiction is a disease of the brain, and like a disease of any other part of our body, it requires a health approach, not a criminal justice approach. We will never arrest our way out of the substance abuse issues facing our state.
Meanwhile, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the police department there this week unveiled new policies to shift the balance to a more health-oriented approach to dealing with their heroin crisis. If an individual comes to the department with the remainder of their drugs and/or drug equipment (e.g. needles), the police will not issue an arrest, but instead, essentially issue a referral to detox and the first steps towards treatment and recovery. In another move, the police department will use the money seized from drug dealers to fund supplies of Narcan at local pharmacies. The opiate overdose antidote will be available to individuals, whether or not they have insurance. The police spokesperson said it best:
“We have to take the stigma away from alcoholism and drug addiction… Because the people aren’t bad people, they’re addicted people.”
And that’s just it, we must continue to work on reducing stigma around substance abuse, whether it is alcohol, marijuana, or heroin. Smart policies such as these two examples are important tools in that effort. The focus of some to legalize drugs misses the mark. It sidesteps the issues of addiction and criminal justice and does nothing to advance getting more Mainers the help they need and deserve. Instead of legalizing drugs and creating more drug abuse issues, let’s come together and create more of these innovative policies that will actually create change and get more people on the path of wellness.