Danielle Allen, a Democratic candidate for Mass. governor, wants to decriminalize drugs, including heroin

Democrat Danielle Allen, a candidate for governor, announced a drug decriminalization policy proposal on Wednesday in front of the Massachusetts State House. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Danielle Allen, a Harvard professor and gubernatorial candidate, said that if elected, she would push to decriminalize all controlled substances by eliminating state criminal penalties for small amounts of heroin, cocaine, and other drugs.

Allen said the proposal, which she released Wednesday, would keep criminal charges in place for larger amounts of drugs that would trigger distribution or trafficking charges. But she would seek to reclassify nonviolent personal-use possession as a civil violation subject to a fine, arguing Massachusetts’ current approach to policing drugs is failing to stem its still-raging opioid epidemic.

The campaign pitch edges into uncommon territory for a Massachusetts statewide candidate, and echoes Allen’s past writing on drug policy, including in a memoir in which she dubbed herself a “legalizer.” It could also serve as a differentiator between her and her primary rivals, Attorney General Maura Healey and state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, both of whom on Wednesday refrained from embracing the idea.

“We’ve got more than five people a day dying. We’re not getting the job done,” Allen, a Cambridge Democrat told the Globe, pointing to the more than 2,000 fatal overdoses the state recorded every year between 2016 and 2020. The state reported 1,613 opioid-related deaths through the first nine months of last year. “You can’t get the job done if you leave the stigma of criminalization in place.”

The changes she’s pushing would require approval in the Democrat-controlled Legislature, which resisted calls to decriminalize or legalize marijuana before voters approved those changes through three separate ballot questions in 2008, 2012, and 2016. They’re also likely to face resistance from law enforcement, including from those who’ve embraced steering opioid users from arrest and into treatment.

“Certainly, arrest is a last resort, but in some cases, it’s an effective tool to force someone into a jail setting, if necessary, where they have access to treatment, if nothing else works,” said John Rosenthal, founder and board chairman of the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, which he said opposes decriminalization of personal-use possession, including for heroin.

“There’s no reason to throw that tool out of the tool box,” he said.

Governor Charlie Baker and lawmakers have poured resources into fighting the opioid scourge, passing two legislative packages since 2015, seeking to make the overdose-reversing drug naloxone more widely available, and providing funding to expand the number of available beds for those seeking addiction treatment. Baker last week called Massachusetts “a national leader in the fight against opioid addiction” in his State of the Commonwealth address.

Yet, opioid deaths have continued to hover at or near record levels, both in Massachusetts and across the country, fueling calls for more aggressive — and different — strategies.

Rhode Island, for example, became the first state to authorize so-called overdose prevention, or supervised injection, sites statewide, allowing for places where people can consume illicit drugs with medical supervision. It also passed a new law last year reclassifying personal-use possession of 10 grams or less of certain drugs — such as cocaine and fentanyl — as misdemeanors, joining Massachusetts and 19 other states that “de-felonized” drug possession, according to Rhode Island officials.

New York opened the country’s first supervised injection center in November, and Somerville has sought to do the same. (Allen said she believes there’s a “place for state-opened prevention centers” in Massachusetts, but is focusing her initial policy pitch on a promise to provide support for municipal-run centers.)

Attitudes toward marijuana have also shifted nationally. Eighteen states have legalized recreational cannabis, including Connecticut last year.

Still, decriminalization of so-called hard drugs is widely considered a more radical option, though not an unprecedented one. Oregon voters in 2020 approved a ballot measure eliminating criminal penalties for personal-use amounts of drugs, providing what Allen called a framework for a potential Massachusetts law.

“Decriminalization holds a lot of promise and the Commonwealth should absolutely pursue it,” said Leo Beletsky, a Northeastern University associate professor of law and health sciences who has been critical of Baker’s response to the crisis. “It is necessary, but not sufficient.”

Allen said she would she would seek changes in line with a bill filed by state Representatives Liz Miranda, of Boston, and Mike Connolly, of Cambridge, which would limit fines to $50 and waive them if a person participates in a screening to identify “health and other service needs.”

Also, Allen said, if a person doesn’t pay their fine, they would not face further penalties, nor would there be a “strike system” subjecting them to jail time for a third offense, according to her proposal.

“This is about making sure we can deliver help, not handcuffs,” Allen said.

In a field of progressive Democrats, Allen appears alone in pursuing the idea. A spokeswoman for Healey, currently the state’s law enforcement official, did not say whether the South End Democrat supports the idea.

“She has been guided by families most deeply impacted by the opioid crisis every step of the way,” Karissa Hand said of Healey in a written statement. “Their voices will continue to guide her approach as Governor.”

Chang-Díaz said she’s “open to considering” decriminalization, but emphasized leveraging tools the state already has. The Jamaica Plain Democrat also touted a bill she filed to pour funding into programs that would dispatch behavioral and mental health professionals to nonviolent calls instead of police.

“We know that when someone is in a moment of crisis, a person with a gun is often the wrong response,” she said in a statement.

Geoff Diehl, a Republican candidate for governor, said he’s open to discussing safe injection sites as an intervention tool, but dismissed decriminalization as an option, saying it would make “a bad public safety situation even worse.”

Allen’s family’s own struggles inform her approach to policy. She said a younger cousin, also named Danielle Allen, struggled with opioid addiction before her death last year.

In her 2017 memoir, “Cuz,” she both recounts the life and death of another cousin, Michael — at 16 he was sentenced to nearly 13 years in prison after an attempted carjacking and, after a second stint in prison, was murdered at 29 — and examines the war on drugs, writing that it has overloaded the criminal justice system with nonviolent drug offenses.

She also cites what she calls the “parastate” run by drug gangs. To overthrow it, she writes, you have to legalize it.

“Does legalizing marijuana everywhere and decriminalizing hard drugs sound like turning the world upside down?” she wrote. “Here’s what’s been turned upside down. This girl who always tried to be squeaky clean . . . has turned into a proponent of legalizing drugs, including even decriminalizing heroin. Even though she’s seen relatives ruined not just by incarceration but by addiction, too. I have become a legalizer.”

In an interview, Allen noted that, now as a candidate, she’s not advocating legalization of all drugs but “reclassifying” them.

“This has been motivating me for a long time,” she said. “I believe this is the path forward.”

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