Maine Takes Two Big Steps Toward Decriminalizing Drug Use

Press Release April 27, 2016
Media Contact

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<p>Jer&oacute;nimo Salda&ntilde;a (212) 613-8074</p>

The Maine legislature has enacted two bills this session that will greatly advance treating drug use as a public health issue instead of a criminal justice issue. Earlier today, LD 1554 passed into law without the governor’s signature, and will make simple drug possession a misdemeanor instead of a felony. Under the law, possession of less than 200 mg of heroin will be no longer be charged as a felony.

According to a survey conducted earlier this year by the Drug Policy Alliance, a substantial majority of Maine voters support decriminalizing drug possession. Sixty-four percent of voters in Maine think people caught with a small amount of illegal drugs for personal use should be evaluated for drug issues and offered treatment; they shouldn’t be arrested or face jail time. Seventy-one percent say substantially reducing incarceration is somewhat or very important to them.

National polls show that more than three-fourths of Americans believe the war on drugs has failed. In 2014 Californians voted overwhelmingly for Proposition 47, a ballot measure reducing penalties for several nonviolent offenses that included a substantial reduction in penalties for drug possession.

Earlier this month, both chambers of the Maine legislature resoundingly approved legislation that would fund Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) programs. Pioneered in Seattle, LEAD allows police to divert individuals who commit low-level drug offenses to harm reduction based case management services instead of jail. An independent evaluation found LEAD reduces the likelihood of reoffending by nearly 60 percent compared to a control group that went through the criminal justice system “as usual.” Santa Fe, New Mexico began implementing LEAD in 2014 and Albany, New York began last year.

The bill will also help fund peer support addiction recovery centers. The measure makes grants available for substance abuse assistance pilot programs, including those run by local governments, to divert low-level offenders into community-based treatment and support services with the aim to reduce pre-trial costs to jails.

Support for ending the criminalization of drug use and possession is gaining traction. More than 1.5 million drug arrests are made every year in the U.S. – the overwhelming majority for possession only. High-profile endorsers of not arresting, let alone jailing, people for possessing small amounts of any drug include the American Public Health Association, the World Health Organization, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, the Organization of American States, the National Latino Congreso, the NAACP, the International Red Cross, and Human Rights Watch.

“The failed war on drugs has devastated our communities and been responsible for countless deaths. It is encouraging to see Maine join the many other states and municipalities who are implementing sensible solutions rooted in science and human rights to deal  with problematic drug use,” says Jerónimo Saldaña, policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance. “We cannot incarcerate our way to healthier, safer communities.”

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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