Police in This City Vow to Stop Arresting Drug Addicts

Instead they'll help put people on a fast track to recovery, representing a major shift in drug policy.
by | May 8, 2015
Gloucester, Mass., is a seaside city of 28,000.
Gloucester, Mass., is a seaside city of 28,000. (FlickrCC/Mary Petersen)

If Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello’s goal was to spread the word about a shift in tactics on the drug war, he succeeded admirably.

The chief for the seaside Massachusetts city of 28,000 posted a message to Facebook earlier this week that has nearly as many shares as Gloucester has people. In it he announced that starting in June, addicts who seek help from police will not face charges for possession of drugs or paraphernalia. Instead, they’ll be assigned an “angel” who will guide them through recovery “not in hours or days, but on the spot,” his department wrote.

Two area hospitals have pledged to take on the potential influx of new patients and place them on a fast track to recovery. On top of that, the police department is making a nasal drug that reverses overdoses available at little to no cost without a prescription at select pharmacies in the area.

“The reasons for the difference in care between a tobacco addict and an opiate addict is stigma and money,” Campanello wrote. “Petty reasons to lose a life.”

Campanello is the latest public official to respond boldly to an issue of growing national importance.

By the National Institute on Drug Abuse's measure, the number of heroin users nationwide doubled from 380,000 to 670,000 between 2005 and 2012, and fatal overdoses spiked about 50 percent to 2,780 in 2010. Heroin belongs to a class of drugs called opioids, which are often commonly abused in pill form and are in many ways an even bigger problem. Official sales of prescription painkillers alone have quadrupled since 1999. Deaths from overdose have climbed more than threefold over that same period.

The problem is sparking a shift toward “harm-reduction” from punishment nationwide.

Campanello is aware of all of that. “Every city, every county in the country, has this issue,” he said in a phone interview. “We’re just choosing not to hide it.”

At 16 deaths per 100,000 people, Gloucester’s county of Essex isn’t even tops in Massachusetts. But the area also drew national attention during another rise in opioid use in the late 1980s. Some then posited that the city’s fishermen were especially vulnerable, and its position between far wealthier places “tends to attract the losers from other communities” seeking a cheap place to get high, as drug abuse counselor Ron Morin explained to the Associated Press.

No matter the reason, Campanello believes a shift needs to take place because stopping the supply of drugs is a losing battle. It has to start with the individual user, he argues. He brushed off any worries that his city’s shift will bring trouble with state or federal authorities; he said he even spoke with Gov. Charlie Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey, who gave the program “three cheers.”

“I’m not worried a bit about blowback from any political entity,” Campanello said.

The Essex County District Attorney offers a diversion program that allows some minor offenders to avoid prison if they opt for treatment instead. Campanello sees the potential for his program and the county's to work in tandem, both for those who do end up getting arrested for other reasons and those who want to take a more proactive approach.

Whether area addiction services can handle a potential influx of new patients is another question. Other places that have emphasized treatment, such as Vermont, have faced issues with capacity for people who need intensive inpatient treatment as well as ongoing primary care, counseling or access to drugs that suppress cravings once they’re released.

Mary Anna Sullivan, the medical director for Lahey Health Behavioral Services, acknowledges that’s a concern, but she’s hopeful that a $4.8 million state grant can help avoid relapses. It will fund community health workers who work with the most severe cases on a wide range of issues that help lead to addiction, from joblessness to housing, as well as connecting users to continued care and ensuring they go to those appointments.

“I think a lot of the recidivism in detox clinics is because we’re not connecting the dots in between,” she said.    

As for the change from the department, she’s cautiously optimistic.

“I’m not sure this is really going to change the people we see; I think if it changes the mindsets of police officers making arrests, that’s a big deal.”