Last week, Michael Botticelli, acting director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, made the exciting announcement that Maine would be receiving $7.5 million dollars to fight substance abuse through community education and treatment programs. In our letter to the editor in the Bangor Daily News today, we commend this approach. 

In a speech in Bangor, Botticelli told the crowd that treatment and support are the answer to addressing substance abuse in Maine; however, they are dramatically hindered by the stigma that comes with addiction. People suffering from substance abuse disorders often don’t seek the help they need for fear of what would happen if others were to find out about their addiction. And their fears are not unfounded. Here in Maine, mere possession of any amount of a prescription opioid or heroin is a Class C crime, punishable by up to five years in prison and a felony record.  

As we have blogged about before, drug addiction is a disease that requires health-based treatment. Opioid dependence, particularly, can change the very chemicals in a person’s brain making overcoming addiction a life-long challenge. But rather than build up a robust system of support for members of our community grappling with addiction, for the last 40 years we have continued to rely on punishment through use of our criminal justice system. Criminalizing addiction has not only contributed to the unprecedented growth of our justice system, it has perpetuated the false message that substance abuse disorders are individual moral failings, and thaht those suffering from it are deserving of punishment and exclusion from society.

As Botticelli highlighted in his speech, in order to address drug addiction in Maine, we must also address the stigma of addiction. While this process may take time, ending the criminalization of individuals suffering from this often devastating disease is a great place to start.