Throwing people in jail didn't help, so this chief found a better way to help addicts recover.

Remember the War on Drugs?

In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs, citing drug use as public enemy #1 in the United States. Since then, the government has used more law enforcement and harsher laws to wage that war. More than 40 years later...


Mission accomplished? ... Yeah, except not. Photo by Stephen Jaffe/AFP/Getty Images.

Well, I guess you could say that the government has lost.

Despite throwing tons of cash into the policies made under this campaign — the Drug Police Alliance estimates over $51 billion a year — the use of drugs is still as prevalent as ever. The rate of drug use remained the same while drug arrests went up. In fact, most arrests in 2013 were due to drug abuse violations.

With this in mind, slowly but surely, the United States has been making a shift away from using prison sentences to respond to people with drug addictions. In fact, Obama just pardoned 46 nonviolent drug offenders.


Why? Because throwing people in jail for using drugs just hasn't worked.

Critics — from non-profit organizations to journalists to criminal justice reform advocates have long condemned the use of the criminal justice system to deal with people with addictions. In fact, support for this tactic is at an all-time low: A 2014 Pew Research Center survey showed that 67% of Americans think we should focus on treatment for people with addictions rather than incarceration.

Still, according to the ACLU, drug-related arrests are the reason why one-fourth of inmates are in jail. Instead of decreased drug use, we've just gotten increased imprisonment rates — with some of our most vulnerable people (such as the poor and people of color) disproportionately paying the price.

But one police chief has come up with something that works way better than an unjust and ineffective war.

Meet Leonard Campanello, the chief of police in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Photo via Gloucester Police Department.

Chief Leonard Campanello started a program to give people who struggle with addiction a judgment-free place to go for help. Anyone who is addicted to opioids can come into the station, surrender their drugs and paraphernalia, and not get arrested. Instead, they are fast-tracked to a rehab center that will help the person — for little or no cost.

The program started in June, and it's already a huge hit.

Its success has inspired more initiatives to provide more resources for people with addiction. Near the end of its first month, the governor of Massachusetts announced a $27 million initiative to create more resources to assist people seeking recovery, including a media campaign to reduce the stigma around addiction that often keeps people from getting the help that they need.

People have been coming from all over the country — including all the way from the West Coast — to participate in Gloucester's program. Upon learning about the program's success, other police departments have become interested in bringing it to their towns. In response, Campanello founded The Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative to help them as they set up similar programs in their own towns.

One of the reasons for its success is that each person gets an "angel" when they first come in for help.

The role of the angel is simple yet has a huge effect. They provide unconditional support to the person with addiction and to hold their hand through the process, sometimes literally.

What a difference a supporting hand makes! Photo via Pixabay.

Campanello told The Guardian, “Many of the people we have worked with have said having an angel made the difference."

This program shows how support can be a powerful force in helping people struggling with addiction.

Campanello knows that moving away from treating drug addiction as a crime and toward providing a safe space for people with addictions helps create better communities. And numerous states have succeeded have proven this by creating safer communities while also throwing fewer people in jail.

By treating people with compassion and understanding instead of acting like their addiction is a crime, more people will be able to access the help they need to recover that they might have been too afraid to seek before.

Considering that drug overdoses recently dethroned car accidents as the #1 cause of injury-related deaths in the country, this seems like a good way to help reverse that trend.

Want to learn more? Check out The Guardian's coverage of the program and visit PAARI's website.

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Edith Ornelas, co-creator of Mariposas Collective in Memphis, Tenn.

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