Massachusetts town takes new approach to opiate addiction

The fishing town of Gloucester, Mass., announced that it will treat, not arrest, addicts who volunteer their drugs and paraphernalia to police.

Timothy D. Easley/AP
A prisoner in ankle chains appears before Judge David A.Tapp as he is evaluated for his willingness to participate in the Supervision Motivation Accountable Responsibility and Treatment program, also known as SMART probation at the Pulaski County Courthouse in Somerset, Ky. The rise heroin addictions nationwide has spurred some localities like the Gloucester, Mass. Police Department to rethink how they combat the proliferation of heroin in their communities. The police department announced Monday that it would no longer arrest addicts who voluntarily turned themselves in to police who would then help direct them to help.

Beginning June 1, opiate addicts who show up at the Gloucester, Mass., police station with their drugs will not be charged with a crime.

"Instead," writes Police Chief Leonard Campanello in a Facebook post, "we will walk them through the system toward detox and recovery. We will assign them an 'angel' who will be their guide through the process. Not in hours or days, but on the spot."

Two local hospitals have agreed to "fast track" those addicted to heroin or other opiates who walk in to the station. Additionally, Narcan, a drug used to treat overdoses, will be made available for little or no money at at least one drug store. For those without health insurance, the police will cover the bill, using funds seized from drug dealers during investigations.

Opiate addiction has become a major challenge for Gloucester, a city of 30,000. According to the Boston Globe, three fatal overdoses have been reported in the city so far this year. Last year, more than 1,000 people in Massachusetts died from heroin, opiates, or other opioids, reports the Boston Globe. (For comparison, there were 326 motor vehicle fatalities in Massachusetts 2013.)

The problem extends well beyond Massachusetts, as The Christian Science Monitor's Kristina Lindborg reported in her March 2014 cover story, datelined in nearby Newburyport, Mass.

From Los Angeles to Long Island, Chicago to New Orleans, parents and police are struggling with a rise in heroin use in suburban neighborhoods more often concerned with SAT scores and the length of lines at Starbucks.

The rise is being driven by a large supply of cheap heroin in purer concentrations that can be inhaled or smoked, which often removes the stigma associated with injecting it with a needle. But much of the increase among suburban teens, as well as a growing number of adults, has also coincided with a sharp rise in the use of prescription painkiller pills, which medical experts say are essentially identical to heroin. These painkillers, or opioids, are prescribed for things such as sports injuries, dental procedures, or chronic back pain. Yet in a disturbing number of cases, experts say, they are leading to overdependence and often to addiction to the pills themselves, which can then lead to heroin use.

"The perception [used to be] that heroin was mostly an urban problem," Anthony Pettigrew, an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration based in New England, told Ms. Lindborg. "But now there are no borders, there are no demographic or geographic areas ... that are immune from heroin."

Gloucester isn't the first city in the United States to experiment with a "treatment, not jail" approach to addiction. Last month, the state's attorney for Cook County said that the county would steer many nonviolent felony drug cases in the Chicago area to treatment instead of to prison. Seattle, Wash., launched a similar program in 2011. 

Chief Campanello, for his part, says that he will go to Washington, DC to meet with lawmakers and discuss his cities approach. In his Facebook post, he writes:

I am asking for your help. Like this post, send it to everyone you can think of and ask them to do the same. Speak your comments. Create strength in numbers. I will bring it with me to show how many voters are concerned about this issue. Lives are literally at stake.

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