A new bill proposing reduced penalties for some drug offenses in Maine by classifying them as misdemeanors instead of felonies has sparked strong debate about how to deal with drug offenders. In many ways, the debate pits the more old-fashioned “war on drugs” approach against the growing trend toward reducing penalties and shifting the focus to treatment, with some saying that punishing people for being addicted is ineffective and economically disastrous, while others argue that those furnishing addicts with dangerous substances could get off too lightly. This is a debate we’ll be hearing more and more of in coming years.
The bill—LD 113—aims to address the current situation in Maine, where the possession of even a couple of pills is classed as a felony and punishable with several years in jail. The bill proposes changing a large number of these to misdemeanors, meaning that the maximum sentence would be reduced to just one year in jail. The supporters of the bill put forward arguments most people have heard many times in recent years, namely that increased punishment doesn’t seem to be effective in reducing drug use and that locking up countless people who are victims of a disease is fiscally catastrophic. Republican Sen. Eric Brakey commented that, “Arresting and housing people in jails for addictions costs hundreds of millions of dollars for little return on investment.” Although the focus on the cost and “return on investment” seems a little cold-hearted, the core point is that the money could be better spent elsewhere, namely on treatment and prevention measures. Dan Wathen is former chief justice of the Maine Supreme Court and currently holds a position on the board of the state’s American Civil Liberties Union. He argues that the current approach just doesn’t appear to be working. “All of that is premised upon this notion that … if you threaten people with serious enough punishment that it will change their behavior. It hasn’t worked,” he said. The problem with the simplistic “more punishment” approach is that it ignores the psychological realities of drug use. People don’t use drugs because they think they won’t get in trouble or because they haven’t been “scared straight.” They use drugs because coping with the pressures, stress and intense emotions of everyday life is hard. Some people use healthy coping strategies, while others turn to drugs, alcohol, food, sex or pretty much any addictive substance or activity to help them get by. Does this mean they need long jail sentences, or do they simply need some support and guidance? Lisa Marchese, head of the Maine attorney general’s criminal division, has some issues with the bill as proposed. She says, “LD 113 would allow for some of the most dangerous people selling some of the most dangerous substances to receive substantially reduced sentences that would serve as little deterrent to their desire to turn a profit on the backs of addicted Mainers.” Geoff Rushlau, district attorney of Waldo, Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc, echoes these concerns. “Somebody who furnishes heroin, gives somebody heroin, would be committing a misdemeanor offense. I hope nobody thinks that is a good approach for our law to take.” The point is clear: being lenient on those with addictions may also mean being lenient on the dealers profiting from their disease. While this is certainly a good point, there are compromises that could be put forward, including making the penalty for possessing less than 30 milligrams of hydromorphone, hydrocodone and oxycodone a misdemeanor. So far, this approach has been widely supported, addressing concerns about letting dealers off too lightly while still removing harsh penalties for small quantities of controlled substances.
Prison Doesn’t Solve the Problem
More and more Americans are realizing that imprisoning addicts does not solve the problems that got them into trouble. The reality is that without support and guidance (and in many cases, a few relapses), somebody who got into trouble due to addiction won’t pick up the new skills, insights and coping mechanisms that he or she needs to overcome a reliance on substances. A mandated length of time in a cell does nothing to address the complex realities of the problem that has plagued much of the world for millennia. The “official” war on drugs has been raging for decades, but the problem hasn’t disappeared. While we need to ensure dealers do receive adequate punishment, letting the harsh sentences fall onto users—many of whom struggle with addiction—is demonstrably ineffective, and as LD 113 is proposing, it needs to stop.