This could be the beginning of the end of the failed War on Drugs.
It is a rare occurrence when police officers in America organize to undermine the very Drug War they vociferously fight for politicians. Police Chief Leonard Campanello of the Gloucester, Massachusetts Police Department, however, did just that earlier this year when he decided to treat — not arrest — heroin addicts who came to his department seeking help. His revolutionary “ANGEL” program has proven successful for addicts and their families in Gloucester, but it has also inspired other departments across the country to adopt similar programs amid growing officer fatigue over the ineffectual arrest and incarceration of addicts.
In May, Campanello announced via Facebook that his department would adopt the new policy of treatment over arrest (note: it does not apply to individuals caught in possession of drugs who do not turn themselves in). The move was met with widespread praise and the new policy was officially enacted in June. Treatment centers and pharmacies have partnered with the police department to ensure addicts receive the care they need.
As the police department’s website explains:
“If an addict comes into the Gloucester Police Department and asks for help, an officer will take them to the Addison Gilbert Hospital, where they will be paired with a volunteer ‘ANGEL’ who will help guide them through the process. We have partnered with more than a dozen additional treatment centers to ensure that our patients receive the care and treatment they deserve — not in days or weeks, but immediately.
“If you have drugs or drug paraphernalia on you, we will dispose of it for you. You will not be arrested. You will not be charged with a crime. You will not be jailed.
“All you have to do is come to the police station and ask for help. We are here to do just that.”
Five months since the program launched, Campanello reports positive results: over 260 addicts have been placed in treatment. This summer, shoplifting, breaking and entering, and larceny dropped 23% from the same period last year. “We are seeing real people get the lives back,” he said. “And if we see a reduction in crime and cost savings that is a great bonus.”
Other police officers are following suit. John Rosenthal is the co-founder of Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, a nonprofit that helps police departments around the country adopt programs similar to Gloucester’s. Rosenthal says almost 40 departments in nine states (Connecticut, Ohio, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, and Vermont) have adopted at least some aspects of the program, and 90 more departments want to get involved.
Though the specifics of the programs vary, they all aim to treat addicts. Police are even participating through Veterans Affairs, as opiate addiction is high among veterans.
The program, which Campanello has funded with money seized during drug arrests, has been well-received by departments that implement similar strategies. John Gill, a police officer in Scarborough, Maine, said his local police station saw a “profound” change. He credits Gloucester with the courage to go through with it: “It was the Gloucester ANGEL project which showed us that a relatively modest-sized police agency could have a real impact. And like Gloucester, we couldn’t afford to wait until the perfect solution came along.”
Opiate addiction has skyrocketed in the United States in recent years. In 2013, 517,000 were abusing heroin — a 150% increase from 2007 — and deaths due to heroin tripled in that same period of time. Addiction has spiked across multiple demographics, though 90% of first-time users are white. Fully 75% of new heroin addicts previously used prescription drugs, implicating the legal drug industry, as well. This epidemic has prompted action by various government entities: from the DEA’s crackdown on pharmaceutical over-prescription to President Obama’s recently announced plan to reduce addiction and improve access to treatment. Though the president commuted the sentences of 46 drug offenders over the summer, 48.4% of the prison population is incarcerated for narcotics offenses — proving the Drug War is still very much in effect.
So far, it appears the most expedient method to reduce drug arrests and improve treatment options comes from officers employing ANGEL-like policies on the ground.
“We’re absolutely, unequivocally thrilled by the reception of this program by law enforcement,” said Rosenthal. “Police chiefs are recognizing we can’t arrest our way out of this, that this is a disease and not a crime and that people suffering from this disease need treatment, not jail.”
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