The state came as close as it ever has to decriminalizing all drugs last month.
“Any person who violates this section shall be subject to a civil fine of not more than fifty dollars or participation in a needs screening to identify health and other service needs,” the proposed change to the state’s drug laws read.
Called “An Act relative to harm reduction and racial equality,” two bills were first introduced to both legislative bodies in March of last year. S.1277 and H.2119 both sat quietly in legislative committee until September, when lawmakers held a virtual hearing on the bills.
They again sat without motion or comment, through most of a year, until the very end of June when they were unceremoniously reported favorably by the Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery and quietly sent to the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing to determine the “appropriateness and fiscal effect of such legislation.”
That committee has since referred the House’s version to a study order, effectively ending its progress, a spokesperson for state Sen. Julian Cyr, one bill’s sponsor, told the Herald.
The fact that the matter was considered represents progress, according to drug policy change advocates.
“The war on drugs has failed. The experience of the last few decades shows arresting and jailing people for drug use does not work,” Emily Kaltenbach, a senior director with the Drug Policy Alliance told the Herald.
“Drugs are more potent, readily available, cheaper than ever before and people are cycling through prison with zero chance of access to recovery services. The approach that Massachusetts is considering offers people a new option — a health-based approach,” she said.
Attorney General Maura Healey, currently the lone Democrat seeking the governor’s office, said at a press availability Tuesday she is in favor of harm reduction approaches, but did not specifically endorse decriminalization.
“Sadly we continue to experience opioid overdoses and deaths around the state, in fact last year we saw an increase,” she said. “I am a huge supporter of investments in…harm reduction, prevention and recovery efforts. Meeting people where they are.”
Though neither piece of legislation may see the light of the chamber floor, if they did Massachusetts would not be the first state to take this step.
At the end of 2020 Oregon removed all criminal penalty for drug possession. Proponents of the state’s law change, ahead of its passage, said the so-called “War on Drugs” had failed, that decriminalization put tax dollars to better use than criminal process and that drug policy affects people of color disproportionately.
Washington County, Oregon, District Attorney Kevin Barton has told reporters the change in the law has resulted in a spike in overdose deaths and property crimes.
Advocates point to other data. In the first year 16,000 people in the state were given treatment and support for their drug problems instead of arrests, according to a report presented to that state’s health authority.
WORCESTER, MA – JULY 12: Attorney General Maura Healey speaks at a Massachusetts Teachers Association office July 12, 2022 in WORCESTER, Massachusetts. (Staff Photo By Chris Christo/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)