Last Friday, Governor Paul LePage and Public Safety Commissioner John Morris held two Drug Awareness Summits with local law enforcement. These summits were in response to recent data showing rising drug abuse rates in Maine and were closed to both the media and the public. A New York Times article published this past summer highlighted the increased use and availability of heroin throughout New England. Last year in Maine, 21 people died from heroin overdoes  - up from 7 in 2011. In his subsequent comments to the press, Governor LePage expressed concern over the “personal and economic costs associated with drug and alcohol abuse” citing his administration’s estimate that substance abuse in Maine costs the state 1.4 billion annually – or $1,000 per resident.

And we could not agree more; this cost is too high. Since its inception, the War on Drugs has cost billions and billions of dollars, straining both national and state resources.  And what is absent from these numbers is the human cost. The United States has the dubious honor of incarcerating more people than any other country. A record number of people – disproportionately minorities and people of color –are being deprived of their basic liberty and suffering collateral consequences that extend far beyond the time spent behind bars. So given these huge costs to our state budgets, communities and individuals, what have been the benefits of the War on Drugs? Nationwide we have seen no correlating reduction in the demand for drugs. In fact, as the Governor’s summit highlighted, drug abuse in Maine is on the rise. Tough on crime has failed. It is time for a smarter, more effective response.

It is time for our lawmakers to acknowledge the failure of the War on Drugs and take this opportunity to invest in health-based solutions that have proven effective in reducing drug abuse. To read the ACLU of Maine’s full response to the summit please click here.  Across the nation and the world, we are recognizing that criminalization of drugs and prohibition accomplishes very little in diminishing demand, overcrowds our criminal justice systems and opens a space for an illicit market. Increasingly we are seeing public sentiment turn away from the "tough-on-crime" model. In the last couple months alone, we saw the harmful practice of stop-and-frisk ruled unconstitutional, U.S Attorney Eric Holder delivered a powerful indictment of our entire criminal justice system and the Department of Justice announced it would allow the Washington and Colorado laws legalizing marijuana use by adults to go into effect.

While we agree that the issue of increased rates of substance abuse in Maine needs to be addressed – our criminal justice system is not the answer. Instead of pouring more of our scarce resources into the failed War on Drugs, our Governor and lawmakers should look to smarter, less punitive, health-based approaches to drug policy reform. 

Lastly, quick reminder of other drug policy news in Maine. Next Tuesday, November 5th, the voters of Portland will vote on Question 1 - legalizing marijuana use by adults 21 and older in Maine's largest city. This is an opportunity to take action and send a message to lawmakers across the state and nation, that now is the time for a sensible marijuana policy. We strongly encourage all Portland residents to vote Yes on 1.