When two University of Maine professors released a survey last week that showed 74% of Mainers support decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs, they hoped it would convince politicians to support the idea.

But the three candidates for governor say that while they support expanded treatment options, law enforcement must continue to play a key role in the battle against drug use and abuse.

The decriminalization of small amounts of illegal drugs is a separate issue from one raised Thursday by President Joe Biden, who announced that he will pardon those convicted of marijuana possession under federal law.

Marijuana possession hasn’t been a crime in Maine since 1976, when a law went into effect that classified possession as a civil penalty. And in 2016, Maine voters legalized adult-use marijuana sales, with stores opening in 2020.

When it comes to illegal drugs in Maine, Gov. Janet Mills, the Democratic incumbent, opposed a bill last year that would have decriminalized possession of a small amount of drugs. Her position hasn’t changed.

“Fentanyl and heroin are very dangerous drugs,” she said. “I’m against lowering penalties.”

Former Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican running for a third non-consecutive term, said that people should be arrested for possession, but then immediately put into treatment.

“Everybody’s caught for an offense goes to jail day one,” he said. “Day two, somebody says there’s a way out of jail. If you go the detox center and get clean, we’ll put you back out.”

And, if someone stays clean for one year, LePage wants to expunge their criminal record.

“It is so hard for these recovering addicts and alcoholics to find meaningful work and that’s really the whole plan,” LePage said.

The university survey results come at a time when Maine is once again experiencing a high number of drug overdose deaths largely fueled by fentanyl. 

Last year, a record 636 Mainers died of a drug overdose and in the first five months of this year, 266 Mainers died of an overdose, an increase of 9% over the same period in 2021.

The survey showed broad support for access to overdose reducing drug naloxone (76%), but support dipped for syringe exchanges (49%) and safer consumption sites (32%).

Safer consumption sites provide a place for those with substance use disorder to inject drugs under medical supervision and are designed to reduce overdose deaths.

When it comes to naloxone, also called Narcan, Mills and LePage also differ on the use of the overdose-reversing drug. Mills has made it widely available and LePage opposed its widespread use.

“The reason I’m critical of Narcan is it’s only good until the next overdose,” LePage said. “The problem with Narcan is it saves your life today but if you take it three times a week, it’s eventually going to get you.”

Mills said her approach has saved “many, many lives.”

“We have distributed several hundred thousand doses of Narcan,” Mills said. “I would love to create more detox beds across the state.”

Last week, University of Maine professors Robert Glover and Karyn Sporer released the 2021 survey that shows 74% support a move away from criminal punishment for low-level, non-violent drug offenders and toward community programs.

“Mainers, regardless of political affiliation, education, employment, religion, all those demographics, they want a new drug policy approach,” Sporer said last week. “It’s very clear in the data.”

In addition, the number of Mainers affected by the opioid crisis has shifted public opinion away from seeing substance use disorder as a criminal justice issue and instead understanding it as public health issue, Sporer said.

Dr. Sam Hunkler, the independent candidate for governor who has counseled and treated those with substance use disorder, said a combination of jail time and treatment options are important.

“If somebody is revived with naloxone, they go straight to prison,” he said. “And they stay there for at least a month.”

He said the state doesn’t have the money to repeatedly administer Narcan to the same people.

“We enable the addiction to continue,” he said. “We’re enabling the whole problem.”