As Maine reports record overdose deaths, drug policy reform groups are urgently calling on lawmakers to pass a bill before them that would treat substance use as a public health matter, instead of a moral failing met with criminal punishment.

This week, the Attorney General reported that 504 people died of overdose deaths in 2020. The Attorney General also reported the number of suspected overdose deaths in March and April 2021.

In the first four months of 2021, 199 people have died of suspected overdose deaths. That figure puts Maine on track to surpass the number of overdose deaths in 2020, which was already a record year.

The official counts come as LD 967, a major drug reform bill, is pending in the Senate. LD 967 would end criminal penalties for minor drug possession, and offer people another pathway to recovery. People would have the option of paying a fine or taking a health assessment, with a potential connection to treatment. The bill passed in the House last Thursday, June 17. 

fiscal analysis for the bill finds it would save the state more than half a million dollars annually. A recent poll finds significant support for the policy of treating minor drug possession as a civil violation with the option of a health assessment.

The following statements can be attributed as noted:

Courtney Allen, policy director, Maine Recovery Advocacy Project (ME-RAP)

“The recovery community aches for every person we have lost to overdose deaths. Our current drug policies are not only failing to keep people alive, but also wasting taxpayers resources. The money LD 967 would save us annually could be used to expand access to detox beds, harm reduction services, treatment, recovery community centers, and recovery housing. These are the things that we know help to initiate and sustain long term recovery, not jail time and a criminal record.”

Whitney Parrish, policy and advocacy director, Health Equity Alliance (HEAL)

“Decades of punishment have only led to wasted resources, hurting communities, and devastated — or lost — lives. More and more, lawmakers and Mainers are recognizing this failed policy approach has harmed our communities and ravaged health outcomes for generations. LD 967 would be a significant step toward treating substance use like a medical condition, saving more lives and making individuals and communities whole.”

Winifred Tate, director, Maine Drug Policy Lab at Colby College

“We need a public health response to a public health crisis. The likelihood of a person dying from an overdose death after being released from jail dramatically increases. Jail is not a place where the vast majority of people with substance use disorder can find recovery. The key tenets of recovery are connection, identifying and understanding triggers, and building the skills to navigate the challenges of life with community support. This is impossible in jail.” 

Meagan Sway, policy director, ACLU of Maine

“As we continue to see increased overdose deaths, we must reckon with how our current drug enforcement laws are not working. Maine needs a new way forward that looks beyond the criminal legal system as the solution to the overdose death crisis. When we insist on using the criminal legal system to address drug use, it tears families and communities apart, and people keep dying. LD 967 would help ensure people who use drugs don’t lose access to housing, employment, family and other critical supports that are essential to their health and well-being.”