This is a huge step in the right direction.
Beginning June 1, 2015, police in Gloucester, Massachusetts, will no longer arrest drug users who approach them seeking help.
A Facebook post from the chief of police reads:
"Any addict who walks into the police station with the remainder of their drug equipment (needles, etc) or drugs and asks for help will NOT be charged. Instead we will walk them through the system toward detox and recovery." — Chief Leonard Campanello, Gloucester Police Department
Instead of locking up drug users, the police will assign them personal guides who will help them begin the process of recovery.
This is an incredible development that has the potential to save lives.
Heroin and prescription drug abuse has become a real problem in Massachusetts in the past several years. Over 1,000 people died of opioid overdoses in 2014, up significantly from just two years earlier. Four people have died in the first five months of 2015 in Gloucester alone.
Who knows how many of those cases would have turned out differently if users had been able to ask for help without fearing arrest?
Come to think of it, who came up with the idea of throwing people in jail for using drugs in the first place?
The notion that prison is rehabilitative for addicts is, at best, extremely ... not so true. As few as 11% of inmates suffering from addiction get treatment in jail, and over 50% start using again after their release. Nonviolent drug abusers typically pose no threat to anyone other than themselves. And yet, in 2012, drug abuse was the single highest arrest category nationwide, according to an FBI report. Pretty ridiculous!
While Gloucester's new policy is a huge step in the right direction, more still needs to happen.
We need to rethink the way we handle drug addiction nationwide. It's easy to lock someone up, throw away the key, and forget about them forever. It's harder to try and understand the complicated forces that underlie their addiction and try to get them the help they need.
As Chief Campanello bluntly puts it:
"The reasons for the difference in care between a tobacco addict and an opiate addict is stigma and money. Petty reasons to lose a life."
If enough communities follow his lead, hopefully there will be far less lost.