In a radical departure from the lock ’em up mentality that has dominated U.S. drug policy, a bunch of police departments across the United States are fighting the opioid epidemic by offering treatment, not jail, in clear defiance of US Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ mandate to seek harsher penalties for drug offenders, the New York Times reports.
In Massachusetts, Gloucester police Chief Len Campanello’s “Angel Program” sends heroin and prescription painkiller addicts off to treatment beds instead of jail cells. The department assigns one of its volunteers — or “angels” — to guide anyone in need of help through the process.
The sweeping policy change that would generate worldwide publicity went into effect in June, according to Politico.
“As a community, we decided we should do something to erase the stigma by disassociating drug abuse with criminal penalties,” says Campanello. “The supply side can’t be ignored, but the attack on the supply side has failed. We need to address addiction with evidence-based therapy.”
Critics said that he did not have the authority to take the law into his own hands and forgo arrests. But other police departments, fed up with arresting addicts and getting nowhere, saw the Gloucester approach as a promising way to address the epidemic of heroin and prescription pain pills, which together killed 47,055 people in 2014 nationwide — more than died in car accidents, homicides or suicides.
Since the program began, 391 addicts have turned themselves in at the city’s brick police station. About 40 percent are from the Gloucester area; the rest come from all over the country. All have been placed in treatment.
Just as surprisingly, 56 police departments in 17 states have started programs modeled on or inspired by Gloucester’s, with 110 more preparing to do so.