A raindrop. Half of a sugar packet. Four paperclips. These items weigh next to nothing, and yet in Maine, if you possessed street drugs equivalent to these weights, you might be arrested.
For people with substance use disorder or a prior conviction, that arrest could lead to incarceration and a criminal record, significantly hampering recovery efforts or the chances of leading a productive life. In fact, according to political anthropologist Winifred Tate, putting people in jail because of their drug use does more harm than good—and costs twice as much as clearing a path toward recovery.
“Incarceration does the opposite of what people need, which is support and connection. Incarceration is isolation, surveillance, and incredibly traumatizing forms of punishment,” said Tate, director of the Maine Drug Policy Lab at Colby and lead author of a recently released report on drugs in Maine.
The report, “A Better Path for Maine: The case for decriminalizing drugs,” dares to argue that instead of punishment, these individuals should receive the support they need. Housing. Treatment. Addiction medicine.
The first step? Changing Maine’s laws to decriminalize the personal use and possession of drugs.
When laws change, attitudes change. By reducing the stigma toward those with substance use disorder, these individuals can be seen as something other than criminals.
The 64-page report, a joint project between the ACLU of Maine and the Maine Center for Economic Policy, provides a thorough analysis of the significant economic and social costs of “investing in incarceration and policing rather than the collective good,” said Tate, an associate professor of anthropology. It concludes that legalizing personal drug use is the best solution for Maine’s deepening drug and overdose death crisis while calling for investments in demonstrated public-health approaches that are cost effective.
Some of the report’s most striking findings include the enormous and wasteful financial cost of criminalization for both individuals and the state. The report also contains first-person accounts from people with lived experience of drug use and incarceration who describe using drugs to self-manage issues related to mental health challenges and trauma. And the authors write powerfully about how inappropriate the criminal legal setting is for handling what they see as a public health issue.
Decriminalization would change all of this. It would redirect money and resources, remove barriers to recovery, reduce overdose deaths, and allow people to avoid the trauma and disruptions caused by incarceration, said Tate, an expert on drug policy.
Following years of scholarship focused on drug policy in Latin America, particularly in Colombia, Tate turned her attention to these critical issues in Maine in 2019 when she established the Maine Drug Policy Lab at Colby. A think tank for students, scholars, and policymakers, the lab examines drug use, policy, and treatment access.
“Winifred was the lead author of this report in every way: it was her vision and her deep-seated knowledge that made it a success,” said Meagan Sway, policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and coauthor of the report. “Her academic expertise about the war on drugs and her deep experience with interviewing victims of that war made the report the nuanced and powerful advocacy tool that it is.”
The decriminalization report drew from Tate’s ongoing research based on interviews with women who use drugs, incarcerated women, and women in recovery, as well as law enforcement in Maine. For this recent report, the team expanded that pool, interviewing women and men arrested for drug crimes, their family members, prosecutors, treatment providers, and others. Their personal stories add authentic voices to the report, highlighting the tremendous toll that criminalization wreaks on people’s lives.
Tate was overwhelmed to see people’s suffering and how the current approach of criminalization is siphoning money from services that are required to help. “It’s making this so much worse for people on the ground,” she said.
“It’s a complicated set of needs that are not being addressed,” Tate said. “We can see very clearly that there are not enough treatment resources.” The state needs a detox center, for example, more trained personnel, and, most importantly, housing.
“So much of the substance use disorder that we see in Maine is because people don’t have the basic resources they need to survive,” Tate said. “That is terrifying, and it also means that we need to think more broadly about what kind of community we want to be a part of.”
Polling shows that a majority of Mainers support removing criminal penalties for people who use drugs. And in 2021 the Maine Legislature passed LD 967, a bill to make minor drug possession only a civil crime. The bill failed in the Maine Senate, pointing to lingering resistance.
Tate believes that resistance comes from society’s desire for a quick fix. The crisis requires a lot of social and economic investment on different fronts, she said. “There’s no silver bullet, and people want an easy answer. Saying, ‘Well, we’ll just put them in jail’ feels easier.” She also believes that moral judgments—seeing people who use drugs as making bad choices deserving of punishment—play into it.
What’s important at this moment is that people want to help. Tate and her colleagues believe that Maine is ripe for policy change.
This summer they will plan a new legislative strategy for the January 2023 session, when a new decriminalization bill may be presented.
“There’s been a lot of reconsideration of drug laws in Maine, and if you look at the press coverage and the editorials and the way people are talking, that conversation is changing,” Tate said. “We’re hoping that will translate into new and better policies.”
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