Across the nation, lawmakers are waking up to the fact that it’s time for a new approach to drug abuse. Yet Gov. LePage is calling for a continuation of the same failed policies that have wreaked havoc on our communities and our state budgets. We are alarmed by the governor's plan to introduce legislation that would ramp up the failed drug war by adding 14 new law enforcement positions, 4 new assistant attorney positions dedicated specifically to drug crimes, and four new district court judges that would exclusively hear and decide drug-related cases. This proposal is estimated to cost 2.7 million dollar to implement. To read our response to the Governor’s proposal click here.
There is little disagreement over the complete failure of the ‘War on Drugs’ – the Governor even acknowledged it in his state-of-the-state. Over 40 years, the United States has spent 1.5 trillion dollars on drug control efforts – prioritizing law enforcement resources on drug control, creating entirely new agencies specifically focused on drug crimes and building the largest criminal justice system in the world. Yet despite this considerable investment there has been no decrease in drug abuse.
In Maine, drug arrests have gone up by nearly 240% since the mid 80s, 78% of which are just for possession. And as recent reports have highlighted, Maine continues to grapple with rising addiction rates and over the last couple years has seen skyrocketing heroin use rates. More Mainers died last year from drug overdoses than car crash fatalities.
In her blog on the Governor’s state of the state, Rachel aptly quoted Albert Einstein: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different result.” Nowhere is this more applicable than to the drug war. We have had over 40 years to learn from our mistakes – it is time do something different. Nationally we are seeing movement towards reform. In his February 11th speech, U.S Attorney General Eric Holder again called for support of “Smart on Crime” measures that invest in diversion and treatment programs. Similarly, Governor Peter Shumlin of Vermont used his state-of-the-state address to call for a new approach – substantially increasing the availability of treatment and programs that recognize drug abuse as a public health issue.
There is little doubt that Maine’s tragic rise in drug abuse rates necessitate action. However, as history has shown, arresting and locking people up is not the answer. Instead, we need to focus our resources on health based alternatives and treatment programs. A 2010 report by the Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services estimated that substance abuse costs the state of Maine $1.4 billion dollars annually– of which just 3% (the smallest proportion) is for treatment and recovery services. According to a 2010-2011 National Survey of Drug Use and Health, less than a quater of Maine's population currently grappling with substance abuse recieved any treatment. Since 2010, the number of people seeking treatment for opiate addiction has increased by 15%, however funding for treatment was decreased by 7%. Last month, the Portland Press Herald published an op-ed about the closure of a women’s halfway house in Portland after for undisclosed reasons, the state stopped funding its $330,450 dollar annual budget. The only other women’s halfway house in Maine is located in Bangor – its waiting list has now grown from 25 to 40.
This proposal is not only out of step with the growing national consensus on the need for drug law reform but also just a poor use of our scarce taxpayer resources. Funneling more money into waging the failed War on Drugs is not the answer. It’s time for a more thoughtful, health-centered approach that prioritizes investment in diversion and treatment programs.