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Massachusetts cops stopped arresting addicts and quadrupled treatment rates

For the past 18 months, police in Gloucester, Massachusetts, have taken a novel approach to America’s opioid epidemic: Rather than arresting and locking up heroin addicts, the cops are helping them get treatment.

And there’s evidence the tactic is working extraordinarily well.

From June 2015 through May 2016, the first year of Gloucester’s “Angel initiative,” 376 people approached police on 429 occasions and asked for help with their drug problems, according to a report published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine. In 94.5 percent of those cases, authorities were able to place the person directly into rehab.


Under Gloucester’s program, when drug users make contact with police and say they need treatment, the cops transport them to a local hospital and wait for an “angel” from the department’s volunteer list to arrive and offer support. The user is then handed over to addiction specialists, typically in treatment centers that have agreed to partner with the police.

Massachusetts law guarantees citizens the right to addiction treatment; insurance companies are required to cover up to seven days of detox.

The report’s authors, a team from the Boston Medical Center and Boston University’s School of Public Health, note that nationwide, only 21 percent of people who are addicted to opioids receive any type of immediate treatment. That means Gloucester’s program has effectively quadrupled the rate at which addicts who need help receive it.

“The astounding fact is that people came to the police station for help, and they got it,” David Rosenbloom, a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health and co-author of the report, said in a statement. “In our follow-up calls, participants told us that the police station was the first place they had ever sought help without being judged and stigmatized.”

The researchers haven’t yet analyzed how many people relapsed after receiving treatment, though the fact that there were more referrals than people who participated in the program indicates that some people returned for more help. Data collected during the study showed that roughly half of the 376 participants had been through drug detox at least once before, and about 31 percent had gone six or more times.


Since Gloucester started its initiative, nearly 160 police departments in 28 states have experimented with similar programs. Gloucester received national media attention last year when the city’s former police chief, Leonard Campanello, announced that his officers would not arrest people if they agreed to turn over their drugs and enroll in treatment.

“Someone has to take the first step, that’s all we can do — take the first step towards the building of trust and show that we are good on our word and see addiction as a disease and treat it as such,” Campanello told VICE News shortly after the initiative began in June 2015. “We’ve come to a consensus as a department that we’re not going to arrest our way out of the addiction problem.”

Drug possession and use remain criminal offenses in Massachusetts, so there was some doubt in the seaport of about 30,000 people about whether addicts would come forward after years of hostile relations with police. But Wednesday’s report offers overwhelming evidence that people with drug problems are willing to seek treatment, even if it means asking the cops for help.

Read the full report from the New England Journal of Medicine: