An estimated 65 percent of U.S. prisoners have a substance use disorder, and many experience one or more other forms of mental illness. That means hundreds of thousands of Americans behind bars are sick. Often, illness is what landed them there.

Of 38,893 arrests in Maine in 2019, around one in eleven — 3,614 — were for drug-related offenses, according to a report from the ACLU of Maine and the left-leaning Maine Center for Economic Policy. About three-quarters of those were for charges of drug possession.

While sentencing guidelines for furnishing and trafficking are harsher, even possessing a tiny amount of a drug can carry serious penalties. A Mainer without prior drug convictions who is found guilty of possessing any amount up to 200 milligrams of meth, cocaine or heroin faces up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,000. Then there’s the costs society bears for prosecuting the crimes and carrying out sentences.

The vast majority of possession cases are resolved with plea deals. The median sentence for possession in 2019 was 90 days in county jail and a $400 fine, according to the ACLU/MCEP report.

Those working in the judicial system are intimately familiar with the toll of substance abuse on the community and their caseloads. One alternative pathway, Maine’s adult drug treatment courts, offers deferred sentencing in exchange for participation in a treatment program. County jails try to provide adequate supports for inmates while incarcerated and as they prepare for release. But is it fair or even practical to put corrections professionals on the front lines of public health? Can we expect to both punish and heal?

The ACLU and Maine Center for Economic Policy make the case for decriminalizing the use and possession of drugs and investing instead in things like treatment, recovery housing and mental health. The current system is both costly and ineffective, they point out.

Portugal in 2001 decriminalized drug use. Those found with small amounts of drugs go before a panel to determine the individual’s risk level and next steps. That might include taking no action, referring the person to counseling or treatment programs, fines or community service. Selling or trafficking the drugs is still illegal. Overdose deaths and new cases of HIV and AIDS among Portuguese drug users dropped between 2001 and 2015. Meanwhile, the number of people receiving treatment greatly increased. The data is promising, but it is challenging to isolate the effect of decriminalization alone. The accessibility of treatment options was a crucial factor.

However blunt the instrument, a drug charge is an opportunity to intervene. We must make better use of that opportunity and the many missed ones that come before it. We must invest in substance abuse and mental health treatment as critical public infrastructure. And we must provide more avenues for people to seek help without stigma or risk of legal problems.

Reprinted from The Ellsworth American.

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