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 \u201cwar on drugs\u201d 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\u2019ll be hearing more and more of in coming years. Reducing Sentences The bill\u2014LD 113\u2014aims 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\u2019t 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, \u201cArresting and housing people in jails for addictions costs hundreds of millions of dollars for little return on investment.\u201d Although the focus on the cost and \u201creturn on investment\u201d 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\u2019s American Civil Liberties Union. He argues that the current approach just doesn\u2019t appear to be working. \u201cAll of that is premised upon this notion that \u2026 if you threaten people with serious enough punishment that it will change their behavior. It hasn\u2019t worked,\u201d he said. The problem with the simplistic \u201cmore punishment\u201d approach is that it ignores the psychological realities of drug use. People don\u2019t use drugs because they think they won\u2019t get in trouble or because they haven\u2019t been \u201cscared straight.\u201d 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\u2019s criminal division, has some issues with the bill as proposed. She says, \u201cLD 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.\u201d Geoff Rushlau, district attorney of Waldo, Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc, echoes these concerns. \u201cSomebody 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.\u201d 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\u2019t 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\u2019t 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 \u201cofficial\u201d war on drugs has been raging for decades, but the problem hasn\u2019t disappeared. While we need to ensure dealers do receive adequate punishment, letting the harsh sentences fall onto users\u2014many of whom struggle with addiction\u2014is demonstrably ineffective, and as LD 113 is proposing, it needs to stop.