HEAL Calls for Bold Solutions to Overdose Death Crisis
January 24, 2020
Bangor — Following yesterday’s reports that drug overdose deaths in Maine rose in 2019, the Health Equity Alliance (HEAL) called on legislators and decision-makers to take bold action now to stop this trend from continuing.
“While the Mills administration and legislature have taken important steps to support people who use drugs—including Medicaid expansion, enhancing access to treatment, and supporting some harm reduction measures—it just hasn’t been enough. We can’t ‘wait and see’ any longer,” said Kenney Miller, Executive Director of HEAL, a harm reduction services provider in eastern Maine and co-founding member of the Maine Coalition for Sensible Drug Policy. “We need to take bold action now to meaningfully impact the overdose crisis. And we need to follow what the evidence shows us: Criminalization of people who use drugs doesn't work. Comprehensive harm reduction measures, like overdose prevention sites, do."
The impacts of harm reduction measures on Maine’s communities have been significant: HEAL provided over 1,500 clean syringes through their Syringe Exchange Program (SEP) and just short of 1,600 naloxone kits in 2019. The Health Equity Alliance and community partners in the Maine Coalition for Sensible Drug Policy say these measures "are critical and necessary, but just not enough" and continue to demand more tools to make a real, sustainable impact.
Leading and shaping the narrative around harm reduction in Maine public policy discussions, HEAL spent last legislative session advocating for overdose prevention sites, increased funding for syringe exchange programs, and sensible reforms to drug policy. Both the administration and legislature declined to support overdose prevention sites in the face of increased overdose deaths, and drug policy reform conversations were pushed off to the second session.
“We can’t possibly end stigma when we continue to criminalize people who use drugs,” said Whitney Parrish, Advocacy and Communications Director of the Health Equity Alliance. “The narrative that arrest and incarceration provide adequate treatment and services is simply not true. Assuming people who use drugs are criminals or inherently prone to criminality pushes them to the margins and into the deepest end of the system. This creates significant barriers to treatment and care. That’s why we need to take a hard look at our current drug laws and finally ask, ‘Is this working? Is this helping people or hurting them?’.”
Parrish continued: “We applaud the steps taken to extend compassionate care to people who use drugs. At the same time, if we’re doing everything we can, significant reform to our criminal justice system needs to be on the table as well. Providing compassionate care while continuing to criminalize and punish are at odds with one another. It’s time for something new—that’s where LD 1492 comes into play.”
LD 1492, sponsored by Rep. Pinny Beebe-Center of Rockland, would reduce Maine’s use of criminal charges to punish people who use drugs. Criminal convictions follow people for the rest of their lives, punishing them indefinitely by jeopardizing access to things like housing, employment, and other preconditions to recovery. The bill, which was carried over from last session, ends some felony charges for possessing small amounts of a drug just because a person has prior drug convictions; ends criminal charges for possessing and exchanging hypodermic syringes; raises the threshold amount for automatically charging someone with felony possession; requires an intent to traffick for felony trafficking charges; and removes criminal penalties for low-level drug possession.
Maine’s thresholds for charging people with felony possession and felony trafficking are incredibly low compared to most other states, according to the ACLU of Maine. Possession of just two grams of heroin, an amount many people use in one day, is automatically defined by law as trafficking – even if the individual has no intent to sell the drug – and carries up to a 10-year prison sentence. By comparison, the threshold in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina is twice that in Maine; in Missouri it is 15 times higher. Most states don’t have automatic felony trafficking charges based on weight alone; rather, they require a showing that the individual intended to traffick.
Possession of 11 or more syringes is also a felony in Maine. When syringes are criminalized, people who use drugs intravenously are more likely to re-use or share dirty syringes, which can increase the spread of HIV, Hepatitis C, and other blood-borne diseases. Maine has one of the highest rates of acute Hepatitis C in the nation.
“The Health Equity Alliance has spent over 30 years serving and advocating for individuals who have HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C, and folks who use drugs. We see the connection between criminalization and rises in preventable diseases. We see the connection between criminalization and negative health outcomes and declining quality of life,” said Miller. “We need to use every tool in our toolbox, and we need access to more of them—that means taking overdose prevention sites seriously and decriminalizing syringes and small amounts of drugs. Maine can continue to lead the nation in sensible policy solutions rooted in compassion and dignity: it’s time to seize that opportunity.”