Instead of this tired debate about stricter drug laws, let’s rethink everything

I don’t envy our lawmakers. It’s been a tough session deciding how to handle the criminal justice component of addressing our state’s drug problem. One recent bill seeks to increase penalties for traffickers, and another increases a misdemeanor heroin possession charge to a felony.

Shockingly, Attorney General Janet Mills and Gov. Paul LePage both back the idea of increasing first-time heroin possession to a felony. They hope the more serious charge will motivate people addicted to heroin to seek treatment. Opponents of the measure feel having a felony criminal record will unnecessarily hinder people later on in their recovery.

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

In my opinion, both are true. I’ve sat as a visitor in Narcotics Anonymous meetings listening to participants speak of “jails, institutions and death.” Participants declare these three things as the only possible outcomes for people addicted to the hardest drugs.

For many with substance use disorders, especially if the disorder involves opiates, the behavior component of the illness is like an out-of-control train that won’t stop until it crashes into one of these outcomes head-on.

To some, punishing people for behavior directly linked to an illness is cruel, and to others, harsh consequences are a way to stop the train. If both are true, which I believe, our lawmakers face a conundrum — a conundrum that indicates our traditional criminal justice paradigm may not be useful in its current form when it comes to this epidemic.

In a previous post, I introduced the idea of paradigm theory and used the changing perspective on addiction as a great example of a paradigm shift in the making:

Historically drug addiction has been seen as anything from a moral failing to a criminal issue, and until recently our systems have addressed substance use disorders as such. Now citizens and elected officials alike are reaching consensus on the idea that substance abuse disorders need to be addressed as medical and mental health issues. That’s a huge paradigm shift in the making.

Implementing such a huge shift is the policy equivalent of reseting a gear train. That one larger paradigm shift needs to align with smaller moving paradigm shifts wherever addiction is having an impact.

When someone commits a crime and is adjudicated for that crime, what do we as a society expect from that adjudication? Accountability? A cessation of criminal behavior? Community safety?

Drug courts — courts that handle people who have committed crimes as a part of their cycle of addiction — have been an attempt to modify criminal justice to meet the needs of offenders with substance use disorders. Participation in drug courts is optional, the caliber of the services provided by these courts vary, and the programs may not be flexible enough to meet the unique mental and behavioral health needs of all who land in jail for drug-related reasons.

I like to think of drug courts as a great first step in shifting criminal justice to address addiction as it pertains to crime, but only a first step.  More remains to be done.

For example, policymakers may decide that, since substance use disorders are now seen as clinical issues, the approach to intervening may need to take a more clinical and less legal shape — or, at the absolute least, the legal and the clinical may need to become more intertwined. Like maybe drug-related felonies need to come with a way for them to be expunged upon completion of treatment programs and a period of sobriety.

And maybe we need vocational programs that hire people seeking recovery from substance use disorders, especially in early stages of recovery when employers may be reticent to hire someone with a criminal history. There’s a wonderful program in California, Homeboy Industries, geared toward rehabilitating gang members, and it seems like a great model for a similar program here in Maine — except it would be for people whose addictions have led to criminality. A big part of recovery is having a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging to and being accountable to a community. Programs like Homeboy incorporate these values into every aspect of what they do.

Maybe part of this paradigm shift will involve starting from scratch, meaning lawmakers here in Maine, in Washington D.C., and all around the country will have to rethink and reestablish our desired goals and outcomes when it comes to adjudicating those whose substance use disorders lead to criminality. This shift is a tremendous undertaking. Getting from where we are today to where we need to be won’t be easy, and in the end it will involve a great deal more than just debates about felony charges.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.