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Drugs

This New England Town Is Trying to Help Opioid Users Instead of Arresting Them

Gloucester, Massachusetts, is set to introduce a drug-forgiveness-and-treatment programme for opioid users, the first of its kind in the nation.

by Luke O'Neil
07 May 2015, 5:50am

Screenshot via VICE News

Starting in June, police in the city of Gloucester, Massachusetts, will no longer arrest opioid users who come to them seeking help—even if they walk into the station carrying drugs. Gloucester police chief Leonard Campanello announced the policy in a Facebook post on Monday, writing that he and his department "are poised to make revolutionary changes in the way we treat this disease."

The disease he's talking about, of course, is opiate addiction. Overdoses have increased dramatically across Massachusetts in the past few years, from 526 in 2010 to 863 in 2013 to more than 1,000 in 2014. The problem is so glaring that former governor Deval Patrick directed all first responders throughout the state to begin carrying naloxone—also known by the brand name Narcan—a drug useful in reviving those who've overdosed. Overdoses have taken a disproportionate toll in coastal hub cities like Gloucester, which in 2015 has already had dozens of overdoses and four deaths. In a typical year it sees about 30 overdoses, which is a lot for a city of a little under 30,000 people.

Recognizing that treating addicts like criminals simply hasn't proven an effective tool, Campanello was inspired to try something new. "As a police chief you always look for ways to do something more," he told VICE in an interview. After announcing the fourth death of the year back in March, he worked with the mayor's office, health department, and the Healthy Gloucester Collaborative to try to brainstorm anything that could be done. "We came up with some ideas we thought would be well received," he said. And based on the outpouring of support for the Department's Facebook post, which has been shared by tens of thousands of people, "I think it turns out we were correct."

The idea behind the Department's proposed plan, which you can read in full here, is to essentially provide amnesty to any addict who comes to the police station asking for help. They will not be charged but instead walked through the steps toward the recovery process with the help of an "angel" or recovery-mediation expert. "Not in hours or days, but on the spot," according to the Facebook post. Two nearby hospitals and treatment centers, Addison Gilbert and Lahey Clinic, have agreed to fast-track those looking for help into recovery options.

In addition, the Gloucester Police Department has formed an agreement with a local pharmacy—and is trying to work out a deal with CVS—to make Narcan available to anyone who needs it for little to no cost, regardless of their insurance status. Narcan blocks the opioids and restores normal breathing, making it an extremely effective tool in preventing fatal overdoses. It only recently became available without a prescription in Massachusetts as a result of overdoses emerging as one of the leading causes of death in the state. For those with insurance, Narcan can be had for a nominal co-pay, but without it a couple doses can cost $50 or $60. Under the new initiative in Gloucester, the police will actually pay for it.

"I've heard from people there that literally the fastest way to get into drug treatment is to get yourself arrested." —Daniel Raymond

"The police department will pay the cost of nasal Narcan for those without insurance," the Facebook post reads. "We will pay for it with money seized from drug dealers during investigations. We will save lives with the money from the pockets of those who would take them."

"I think the impact from this is that law enforcement is supposed to be the enforcers, and we've changed that with this program," Campanello told VICE. "We are now getting on the side of cutting out the demand as opposed to the supply problem."

Related: VICE News traveled to Massachusetts to see how effective Narcan has been in stopping fatal overdoses.

"This would really be the first in the country to take this approach," Daniel Raymond, policy director of the Harm Reduction Coalition, said of the proposed plan. "This is pretty groundbreaking."

In Massachusetts and other states, there are so-called Good Samaritan laws where police have said they they won't arrest people if they get called to the scene of an overdose. But this "walk-in" approach is an additional measure, necessary in part because people are really struggling to get into drug treatment programs.

"I've heard from people there that literally the fastest way to get into drug treatment is to get yourself arrested," Raymond said. "If they can really guarantee that they can make detox and recovery available, that would be huge."

One of the biggest deterrents for people seeking help with an addiction is the fear that they'll be arrested, according to Raymond: "We're still moving away from treating addiction as a criminal problem and toward treating it as a health problem."

Campanello has said he's not worried about any potential political fallout. "I'm not running for any office—let's put it that way," he joked. "The advantage of being an appointed official is I can look my enemy in the eye and speak what's the truth and the best for the community. I serve under the direction of the mayor. I'm not worrying about pushing the envelope when you have people suffering out there."

The political will to make this happen is due in part to the response to a Facebook post the police department wrote back in March, which Campanello sent out in part to test the waters. "We said, 'If you're not involved in drugs, please help us, be our eyes and ears. If you are, we said come to us and we'll try to help you, and if you're a dealer who makes money off the misery of others, we have no use for you, we're going to come get you and get you out of out city.'"

Once the city's leaders saw how people were desperate for something to be done, they signed off on the idea.

Whether people will take them up on the offer remains to be seen. Campanello said it hadn't really occurred to him that drug users might be suspicious of the department's motives and worry that this whole thing is some kind of elaborate sting.

"What was considered was what we could do to help. We were going to do everything we could to reduce the stigma and alienation between police and the community," he said. "There's a trust issue involved. It's a huge leap for us to put ourselves out there as law enforcement and say we're going to ignore what we're supposed to be doing because this is about the bigger picture.

"We as one small police department have decided to draw a line in the sand," the chief added. "We're going to change the way we do things, change our fundamental actions, and we challenge other agencies to do the same."

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