Maine: Voters Oppose Punitive Drug Policies, Support Decriminalization
Findings Come as Legislature Considers Bills Increasing Penalties for Drug Possession
Results Similar to Poll in New Hampshire Which Also Fund Majority Support for Drug Decriminalization
A substantial majority of Maine voters support decriminalizing drug possession, according to a survey conducted over the weekend by Public Policy Polling (PPP) for the Drug Policy Alliance.
Sixty-four percent of voters in Maine think people caught with a small amount of illegal drugs for personal use should be evaluated for drug issues, offered treatment but not be arrested or face any jail time. Seventy-one percent say substantially reducing incarceration is somewhat or very important to them.
The poll results come as the legislature considers legislation backed by the Attorney General that could roll back groundbreaking reforms passed last session that reduced drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. The proposed legislation (LD 1554) would make possession of 30 milligrams (often less than one single pill) or more of prescription opioids and any amount of certain other drugs into felony offenses, continuing the criminalization of drug users and wasting scarce resources on incarceration instead of treatment and prevention.
“Not only should policymakers reject harsher penalties for drug possession they should eliminate criminal penalties for drug possession, as it is the right thing to do morally and voters support it,” said Bill Piper, senior director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). “The war on drugs has failed and it is long past time to treat drugs as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue.”
In 2015, Maine enacted legislation that defelonized simple possession of small amounts of drugs. For first-time offenders, a judge would have the discretion to consider imposing a sentencing alternative that includes medical and mental health treatment for addiction, when appropriate.
Advocates say criminalizing drug use and arresting people who use drugs fails to make communities safer and does nothing to ensure people struggling with drug problems receive the treatment they need.
If legislators made drug possession a felony offense they would make it harder for people with drug problems to get treatment and reintegrate into society. People with felony convictions are commonly discriminated against in employment and housing and can be denied many public benefits.
Support for ending the criminalization of drug use and possession outright is gaining traction in the U.S. More than 1.5 million drug arrests are made every year in this country – the overwhelming majority for possession only.
High-profile endorsers of not arresting -- let alone jailing -- people for possessing small amounts of any drug include the American Public Health Association, the World Health Organization, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, the Organization of American States, the National Latino Congreso, the NAACP, the International Red Cross, and Human Rights Watch.
The Maine Legislature is also considering legislation (LD 1552) to provide funding for syringe exchange programs to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and other infectious diseases, a health service that people will only access if they don’t fear arrest. Syringe access programs are supported by every major medical and public health organization, including the American Medical Association, National Academy of Sciences, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Bar Association, and U.S. Conference of Mayors, as well as UNICEF, the World Bank, and International Red Cross-Red Crescent Society.
Conservative legislatures in Kentucky and Indiana have both adopted syringe exchange programs in recent years, and the Republican Congress recently repealed the years-long ban on federal funding for syringe exchange programs.
Fifty-four percent of Maine voters support syringe exchange programs, only 28 percent oppose them.
Other results of the poll include:
• Seventy-one percent support eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders.
• Sixty-three percent say drug abuse should be treated primarily as a health problem not a criminal justice -problem.
• Fifty-nine percent oppose increasing criminal penalties for small amount of drugs.
• Eighty-nine percent say addressing prescription drug and other drug abuse in Maine and the recent surge in overdose deaths is important to them.
• Fifty percent would be more likely to vote for a presidential or congressional candidate who promised federal support for overdose prevneton efforts.
Support for ending mandatory minimums comes as Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) is under pressure to co-sponsor the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, a bill to reduce mandatory minimums for drug offenders.
Advocates say Maine policymakers have an opportunity to implement the will of the voters and keep families together by rejecting further criminalization of drug users and embracing syringe exchange programs instead.
“Addiction should be treated by healthcare professionals rather than the criminal justice system and, as a taxpayer and citizen of Maine, I would prefer our tax dollars go to prevention, treatment, and recovery, rather than mounting costly felony prosecutions against people actively facing addiction” says Chris Poulos, a person in long term recovery who overcame addiction and federal incarceration to attend law school and work on criminal justice policy reform at the local, state, and federal levels.
The Maine poll is similar to a recent poll in New Hampshire, which found that a majority of New Hampshire primary voters support decriminalizing drugs, eliminating mandatory minimums, and treating drug use as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue.
The poll of 564 Maine voters was conducted February 5-6 by Public Policy Polling.
Photo: Bangor Daily News