The Gloucester Police Department in Massachusetts has been receiving tons of praise since it decided to stop arresting drug users who turn themselves in back in June.
The program — which was designed to funnel addicted persons into treatment instead of prison — is already seeing signs of success: Over 100 people have received care, and the department has been able to keep costs well below expectations.
In fact, the initiative has been so well received that it's already begun spreading to other communities around the region.
Gloucester is just one community in New England — and across the country — suffering from an opioid epidemic.
According to Andrew Kolodny, senior scientist at Brandeis University's Heller School for Social Policy and Management, prescription drug and heroin abuse has exploded in the United States over the last 20 years, resulting in approximately 220,000 overdose deaths between 1999 and 2013.
“An enormous number of people … have lost their lives as a consequence of this epidemic," Kolodny told Upworthy, "And just to put that number into some perspective, that's [well more than] twice the number of Americans who died fighting in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined."
The Gloucester PD soon realized that solving this crisis meant confronting not only the drugs themselves, but the drug companies that make them.
Last week, the department published the names and contact info for the five highest-paid pharmaceutical company CEOs in America on Facebook and asked followers to (respectfully) give them a call:
"Don't get mad. Just politely ask them what they are doing to address the opioid epidemic in the United States and if they realize that the latest data shows almost 80% of addicted persons start with a legally prescribed drug that they make. They can definitely be part of the solution here and I believe they will be ... might need a little push."
A spokesperson for the Gloucester Police Department declined to comment further for this story.
What do drug companies have to do with this? And why are so many people developing addictions to "legally prescribed drugs?"
According to Kolodny, beginning with the introduction of OxyContin in 1995, pharmaceutical companies began aggressively selling opioid painkillers, once used primarily to manage patient pain at the end of life, to hospitals and physicians for the treatment of chronic pain and exaggerating their benefits and downplaying the risk of addiction.
“There were many involved in this who truly fell for the campaign," Kolodny said. "It was compelling. There was this idea that we've got this gift from Mother Nature. Opioids [could prevent] people from suffering needlessly … and so the prescribing exploded."
Kolodny and his colleagues tracked the effects of pioid overprescribing in a recent study, which casts doubt on the assumption that addicted young people acquiring opioids illegally are the primary drivers of the epidemic. Their evidence demonstrates that, "middle-aged and elderly individuals commonly exposed to OPRs for pain treatment have experienced the largest increase in rates of opioid-related morbidity and mortality" since the late 1990s.
Inspired by their police department, the residents of Gloucester sure did give Big Pharma a "little push." And according to the chief, it worked.
On Sept. 18, 2015, Chief Leonard Campanello of the Gloucester PD announced via Facebook that Pfizer — one of the three largest pharmaceutical companies in the world — had agreed to meet with the department:
"Pssst ... Pfizer called (honestly) ... we are meeting with them. When you continue to make your calls, thank them because they could have ignored us all. Instead, within 48 hours ... they responded.
A Pfizer spokesperson confirmed that representatives from the company plan to meet with Campanello.
There's no word yet on the outcome of the conversation, but an open dialogue is a good beginning.
If a police department can learn that arresting people isn't a cure for addiction, hopefully drug companies can learn from past mistakes too and start implementing some real, long-lasting solutions.
Bravo to the Gloucester PD for taking the first, important step in bringing much-needed relief to a group of people who badly need it.