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Seattle Is Helping Drug Addicts Instead of Locking Them Up — and So Far It’s Working

Seattle is taking a revolutionary approach to treating drug abuse, diverting addicts who potentially face criminal charges to housing, treatment, and other services.

by Max Cherney
Apr 15 2015, 7:20pm

Photo by Ted S. Warren/AP

Seattle's revolutionary approach to treating drug abuse has changed Wade Johnson's life. A self-confessed addict, the 35-year-old Johnson has lived in the city since 1988 — minus time spent in prison for robbery and drug charges — and joined the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program three years ago after talking with a case manager on the streets of Belltown, a neighborhood in the shadow of the Space Needle that is a popular haunt for junkies.

"They threw me a life preserver," Johnson told VICE News. "They helped me build bridges back with my family, I'm very employable now. I have a lot to live for. They put me on a platform."

After Johnson expressed interest, the LEAD case manager, Chris Gates, consulted with local cops who knew Johnson and reached a consensus that he was a good candidate for the program. LEAD supplied Johnson, who was then homeless, with housing and a support network that he could use to change his life.

"When you to go to treatment in Washington [state], 80 percent of the people who leave don't have housing," Johnson said. "Me having a place to go to once I was out of treatment, it helped immensely. I had somewhere to go."

Related: Institutionalized: Mental Health Behind Bars

At its core, the four-year-old LEAD program is a street-based harm reduction program for alcoholics and drug addicts in downtown Seattle. It is similar to the way Portugal handles drug addiction, but the program is the first of its kind in the US. Utilizing cooperation between law enforcement, prosecutors, and harm reduction experts, the program aims to help participants get their lives organized rather than locking them up. So far, it looks like it's working.

The 203 participants in the program are 34 to 58 percent less likely to commit further crimes compared with people who are prosecuted and imprisoned, according to an independent review conducted by the University of Washington. There are more studies to come, but the first formal look at the program offered encouraging results.

'It's not like drug court, it doesn't involve abstinence, and doesn't require people to stop using substances.'

"The stats are so robust, which took me by surprise," said Susan Collins, a clinical psychologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine who co-authored the study. "The offenders were basically committing crimes of homelessness, they're basically just [doing enough petty crime] to survive. This program is trying to break the jail-to-street-to-jail cycle. But, it's not like drug court, it doesn't involve abstinence, and doesn't require people to stop using substances."

Although it is still a pilot program at the moment, LEAD seeks to divert drug abusers who face potential criminal charges to social services such as housing, healthcare, job training, and treatment.

"I'm going to keep a job for the next two years," said Johnson. Off the streets of Belltown, he's getting a job at a manufacturing company. Proving he can hold down a steady job is important, he says, conceding the work isn't glamorous but "it gives me a sense of accomplishment."

One crucial difference between LEAD and the way other American cities handle drug abuse treatment is that the program doesn't have an arbitrary time limit or termination date that requires participants to get a job or retain housing for a set period.

Related: Obama may keep pardoning drug offenders for the rest of his term  

"Instead of losing all of the gains and momentum a client has made, it seems like a better use of resources to stick with someone," said Ron Jackson, a social worker involved in LEAD. "Not having a back door doesn't mean you'd have to narrow the entry path."

Talking about his personal experience with LEAD, Johnson admits he "didn't get it on the first try," saying he struggled with addiction and relapse but still received critical support. "I still had that itch," he said. "And sometimes I went out and scratched it. But they were still there, and supported me."

Lisa Daugaard, deputy director of Seattle's Public Defender Association and supervisor of the Racial Disparity Project, an organization that seeks to reform the criminal justice system and drug laws, told VICE News that she fought a four-year legal battle over racial profiling by the Seattle police. Finally, a former captain of the narcotics unit, Steve Brown, agreed to sit down with her and come up with solutions. They met at a local coffee shop, hashing out a plan over several weeks that eventually became the LEAD program.

"The war on drugs is largely a failure," Daugaard said, adding that she found the police were willing to try a different approach. "Even though a lot of people now agree on that, we're still using the same tactics because there's a lack of consensus on how to go forward. LEAD is a next step in that conversation."

The shifting attitude toward drug enforcement comes in part because of scientific evidence, but also because strict drug laws have disproportionately targeted African Americans and Latinos. With millions of people of color behind bars for drug crimes, experts increasingly regard the current US policies as racist.

"Drug laws allow us to target people we don't like without saying it," Carl Hart, an expert on drug abuse treatment at Columbia University, said in February at the International Cannabis Business Conference in San Francisco. "That's what drug laws are. That's what it is. Call it what it is."

Related: Cops are still disproportionately arresting people of color for pot crimes in Colorado 

LEAD's future is uncertain. The program's annual $1.5 million budget — a bill split between the city of Seattle and several private foundations — will run dry in early 2016. Proponents say future studies are needed not only to demonstrate LEAD's efficacy, but also to prove that it's cost effective because it conserves law enforcement and justice system resources.

Seattle's jail is under purview of King County, and Daugaard and her colleagues intend to make to the argument to county officials that the LEAD should be funded because it lowers costs across the board. Other cities — including Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Albany, New York — are reportedly considering similar programs.

Regardless of what happens to LEAD going forward, Johnson says the program had a tremendous impact on his life, even if the change was gradual.

"I had to learn how to live a recovery life," he said. "It's not an easy road, and they've helped. But they want you to have the hunger there yourself."

Follow Max Cherney on Twitter: @chernandburn