In Maine, the opioid crisis and high numbers of overdose deaths—502 in 2020 alone—are growing concerns. Even though public discourse centers on these issues, some key constituents and their needs haven’t gained much attention.

“We feel like there's a real gap in the conversation and scholarship for thinking about women and families,” said Winifred Tate, associate professor of anthropology.

To fill that void, Tate founded the Maine Drug Policy Lab at Colby College, which conducts research on drug use, recovery, and policy in Maine, with a particular focus on women and their families.

Established in 2019, the lab produces reports and contributes to the wider discussions on drugs through conferences, community forums, and workshops.

In less than two years, the lab has already made an impact in several key areas. Its most recent report documented the operation of the Maine Adult Drug Treatment Courts—an alternative to jail for people experiencing substance use disorder seeking treatment—during the pandemic. Moreover, the lab’s research contributed to bills at the Maine State Legislature. And for students, the lab’s work inspired Tate to develop two new anthropology courses: Illegal Drugs, Law, and the State and Courts, Trials, and the Pursuit of Justice.

As a political anthropologist, Tate’s work mainly focused on Colombia, including its drug policy. But recently, she sought ways to bring her research local. “Drug policy seemed like the obvious, unfortunate place to start,” said Tate, the lab’s director.

The lab kicked off its work by holding the inaugural “Ending the Drug War” conference, which provided activists, researchers, and community members a platform to discuss drug policy in the state. It also launched the “Women, Drug Use and Recovery in Maine” project analyzing stories of Maine women in recovery to tease out barriers to accessing treatment as well as how women in recovery or using drugs care for themselves and their families.

But when the pandemic hit, Tate sought ways to carry on with the research remotely. She approached Maine’s drug courts and received permission to document—and examine—changes they implemented as they transitioned online. Tate and her team, including Colby students, interviewed judges, observed online court sessions, and spoke to current and past drug court participants.

Winifred Tate, associate professor of anthropology

“Maine is in the middle of a much broader conversation about understanding why and how people use drugs and what kind of community support is required for people engaged in problematic substance abuse.” —Winifred Tate, associate professor of anthropology and director of Maine Drug Policy Lab at Colby College

“We thought that some of these might be things that they would want to keep around,” said Tate, “particularly given the kinds of challenges that the drug courts are facing in a rural, underserved state.” Maintaining at least some remote sessions could resolve transportation issues—a huge barrier to accessing services. 

Maine native Ketty Stinson ’21, an environmental science major with a concentration in public health, was one of the researchers instrumental not only in the report’s production but the lab’s growth. Interested in community health and policy, this was an opportunity for Stinson to combine her academic interests with community work—a motivator in her life. “This research is essentially trying to get policy passed that will help protect these people and have more human-centric policies,” she said. “That’s so huge. It feels like we’re really doing something important.”

In the end, the report put forth a series of policy recommendations for the drug court administrators to consider, such as expanding training on the use of Narcan (an opiate overdose-reversing drug), continuing to provide remote access to courts, and challenging the idea that jail is an effective punishment method for drug court participants.

Tate believes the report will support changes that court staff is already discussing. “Maine is in the middle of a much broader conversation about understanding why and how people use drugs and what kind of community support is required for people engaged in problematic substance abuse.”

To contribute further to that conversation, the lab joined efforts with the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project, an organization bringing together people with firsthand experience in drug recovery, to support four bills before the Maine State Legislature. The bills advocated for lowering jail phone call costs, funding a community recovery center in every county, eliminating harmful terms like “addict” in government policies, and restructuring drug sentencing laws to treat individual possession as a public health matter rather than a criminal justice issue.

During the sessions, Colby student researchers read testimonies for MeRAP advocates who couldn’t attend the sessions and for women incarcerated in the Southern Maine Re-entry Center who were not allowed to appear. In addition to these, Tate also testified eight times for other bills that the lab advocated in this session.

“It is vital that we have access to data as we are making these truly life and death decisions regarding drug use and the criminal legal system,” Representative Charlotte Warren, chair of the House’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said in an email. She said that Tate’s presentation of the lab’s research to the committee while it crafted state law was “extremely valuable.”

When the pandemic dies down, Tate will be back in the field to collect more real-life data and bring about more change.

“I’m hoping to get back to the part of the project that really is my primary interest, which is how community activists and women in general care for themselves and their families,” she said, “and work for the kinds of political changes that will make their communities and families thrive.”