Recovery advocates unveil bills to invest in treatment, end incarceration of Mainers who use drugs
In an effort to advance a more public health-focused approach to address the state’s worsening drug overdose crisis, recovery advocates last week unveiled a slate of bills they hope to pass during this year’s session of the Maine Legislature.
Those measures come as Maine set a grim record in 2022 for most overdoses in a single year. A February report from the Maine Attorney General’s Office found that 716 people died from drug overdoses in 2022, nearly two people a day. That surpassed the state’s 630 overdose deaths in 2021.
In response, the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project (ME-RAP), a grassroots network, and allied organizations unveiled six top priorities they want to pass through the legislature to invest more heavily in treatment of substance use disorder, a disease, and move away from punishing drug use.
“The Maine Recovery Advocacy Project is proud to be working with a bipartisan network of Maine lawmakers to expand access to prevention, treatment, recovery, and harm reduction services across Maine and end the prosecution of people who possess drugs for personal use,” Courtney Gary-Allen, organizing director of ME-RAP, said in a press release.
“Together we can create a Maine where everyone has access to what they need to enter and sustain recovery from substance use, whatever that means for them,” Gary-Allen added.
Among the most significant measures within the slate is a bill sponsored by Rep. Lydia Crafts (D-Newcastle) titled “An Act to Implement a Statewide Public Health Response to Substance Use.” While the language of the bill has not yet been finalized, the idea behind the measure is to decriminalize personal possession of drugs and invest in treatment for substance use so that — rather than spending time in prison or jail — people receive medical care for problems associated with drugs.
The bill is likely to be similar to a measure pushed by ME-RAP and other groups in 2021, although that bill didn’t include funding for treatment programs. The 2021 legislation passed the House but was rejected by the Senate with opposition from both Democrats and Republicans. Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, also opposed the 2021 bill and has often emerged as an obstacle to overall drug policy and criminal justice reform.
That trend appeared to be continuing last session, when Mills signaled opposition to a bill to expand the state’s existing “Good Samaritan law” by creating additional protections from prosecution at the scene of an overdose, which proponents said was needed to save lives by making people comfortable calling authorities for help. However, Mills eventually struck a deal with advocates and signed the expanded Good Samaritan measure into law in May.
Crafts said lawmakers must build on the progress from last year and pass the drug decriminalization and treatment bill.
“It’s time to acknowledge the harms associated with incarceration — not to mention the cost — and decriminalize personal possession of drugs,” she said. “We will continue to see the consequences of this failed War on Drugs until we are willing to move past drug policies that hurt individuals, families and communities in Maine.”
Along with that bill, advocates and legislators are also seeking to build more recovery resources in Maine. One measure they are backing would increase the scant number of detox beds in the state presently available for people with limited means.
“There are currently only 26 detox beds across the state that accept Mainecare [the state’s Medicaid program]. This is just simply unacceptable,” said Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland), the sponsor of the bill. “We must increase access to life saving treatment for Mainers with substance use disorder if we want to save lives. This begins by ensuring that detox is available to anyone who wants it at the moment they are ready.”
In a similar vein, Rep. Ambureen Rana (D-Bangor) is seeking to support the 17 recovery community centers currently operating in Maine, which help those with substance use issues find community and connections. Rana’s bill would use 12% of cannabis tax revenue to create a fund to provide sustainable support to those centers over the long haul.
“I can think of no better way to use tax money collected by recreational drug use than to support the recovery of people who need it,” Rana said.
Another measure the recovery community is backing, LD 1159, sponsored by Rep. Laurie Osher (D-Orono), would establish a two-year pilot program for harm reduction health centers within municipalities that choose to approve such facilities. Harm reduction health centers are places where clients can use previously obtained illicit drugs under medical supervision — lessening the chance of an overdose — as well obtain health screenings and access disease prevention and recovery assistance services.
“Harm reduction health centers have been proven to save lives, and with over 716 deaths last year, there is no time to waste,” Osher said. “I hope my colleagues will join me in passing LD 1159.”
Demonstrating the breadth of the state’s affordable housing crisis, advocates are also pushing for a bill that would provide rental assistance to people living in recovery residences across Maine. The measure is being sponsored by Rep. Nina Milliken (D-Blue Hill), herself a person in long-term recovery from substance use.
“The last thing someone should have to worry about when they are trying to enter recovery is if they will be able to afford safe housing,” she said. “This bill will help them to be able to concentrate on treatment, taking care of their families, and avoiding relapse.”
The final top priority bill is legislation to require instruction in schools on substance use prevention and the administration of the opioid overdose reversal medication naloxone. That measure is being sponsored by Sen. Matt Pouliot (R-Kennebec) and co-sponsored by Sen. Marianne Moore (R-Washington).
“It is better to prepare youth to administer this simple nasal spray and call 911 than let their friends, family, and classmates die in front of their eyes,” Moore said.
Along with supporting those bills, ME-RAP is also focused on defeating a measure put forward by Rep. Richard Campbell (R-Orrington) that would roll back some of the protections created by the expansion of the Good Samaritan law last year. Campbell’s bill would amend the Good Samaritan law by allowing for prosecution of people present at an overdose on charges of drug trafficking, drug furnishing, or possession of an illegal firearm.
Gary-Allen told Beacon last month that passing the measure would be a huge mistake.
“We don’t want people charged with drug crimes, full stop,” she said. “If we do that, we’re going to just be back at square one, people aren’t going to call 911, and our friends are going to die.”