Police in Gloucester are trying something new in their battle against opiate addiction. It’s an idea that’s being hailed by some as innovative, but others question if it will work, and whether it’s legal.
On a sunny day along Gloucester's beautiful coastline, it's hard to imagine how dark things can get for some people here. Like many Massachusetts cities and towns, Gloucester is struggling with an epidemic of drug addiction. In the first three months of this year, four people died of overdoses.
“We got tired of standing over dead bodies," said Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello.
As of [Monday], he has an unusual invitation for the city’s drug users.
"Come to the station, if you have drugs or paraphernalia, we’ll get rid of them for you," he said. "And we’ll assist in getting you treatment."
And you won’t face criminal charges.
“The act of charging someone stigmatizes them further," Campanello said. "And so the idea of saying, 'Hey, before you get charged, let the entity that would charge you help you,' both pushes the conversation further and reduces stigma.”
Ordinarily, drug treatment is offered as an alternative to charges, or to prison time.
“We know that people who volunteer for help are much more likely to complete that treatment, whatever it may be, than people who are coerced by a charge hanging over their head,” Campanello said.
But it’s not entirely clear if the Gloucester police can legally waive those charges. Campanello got a letter from Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett with a warning.
"While we applaud the general idea of your proposal, an explicit promise not to charge a person who unlawfully possesses drugs may amount to a charging promise that you lack legal authority to make," Blodgett wrote.
"We appreciate the district attorney’s comments and we look forward to working with him in the future," Campanello said. "But the fact is that the police have always had the discretion to charge or not charge and not just with drugs, with most crimes."
Campanello says Gloucester police will continue to use that discretion when encountering drug users on the street. And users would still be charged for any other crimes they commit. The new policy is just for people who walk in.
"We're offering ourselves as another safe haven," he said. "And we’re pushing the conversation from a typically conservative entity such as law enforcement to distinguish that addiction is a disease, and I think that’s where this becomes a provocative story, this is where it becomes a story that’s gained headlines, is that you expect the help from healthcare professionals, you expect the help from social services and collaboratives that deal with addiction. You don’t expect the hand to be reached out by law enforcement."
“It’s a big leap to ask someone to go to the police station,” said Kathy Day, northeast regional manager of Learn to Cope, a regional support network for those struggling with a loved one’s addiction. “And that’s scary for people. So especially when the D.A. came out and said that he can’t guarantee that there’s no charges. So folks might have said well, I don’t know whether they’d consider doing that or not. But then the D.A. came out with saying that and they might go, 'Oh no, I’m not willing to risk charges against me. I won’t go there for help.'"
So Day asked a recovering addict she knew if she’d ever walk into a police station, asking for help.
“And she said you know, at the end of my journey it took me so long to get into detox, she said I would have absolutely gone to anyone that I could, and did go to anyone that I could to ask for help," Day said. "And so, she could see herself, in the place that she was, going to the police station. I said ‘really?' And she said, ‘It was that bad. I would have.’”
“I really see this as creating a potential other front door to services," said Kevin Norton, CEO of Lahey Health Behavioral Services, which works with addicts and has partnered with the police department to help those who take the Chief up on this offer. "The challenge is that this program doesn’t really have any additional resources.”
Their closest detox beds are at 98 percent occupancy, so there’s often a wait for a spot.
"The struggle, especially around addiction is that the window of opportunity tends to be fairly small, so when someone says, 'I’ve had enough and I want treatment’ the goal for us as treatment providers is to engage them at that point because there’s a willingness on their part. When we say 'OK, we're going to do this, tomorrow,' tomorrow may not be right for them, they may decide that between now and tomorrow, their motivation is gone."
Norton says they’ll do their best to meet any increased demand from the new policy, but it’s not clear what’s about to happen.
"Our only indication is that we've gotten phone calls already from other communities saying, 'Hey, so if I bring my kid to the Gloucester police department, can you get him into care?' And I don't think that was the police chief’s intent, and it's not as if all of a sudden a magic number of beds coming online or treatment centers opening up."
Campanello says there may be a way to get more beds. After publicity about the department’s new policy, Campanello says he was contacted by more than a dozen treatment centers. But most are out of state, which Medicaid won’t cover. Some of them say they’ll help with the cost.
The police are also working with local pharmacies to increase access to Narcan, a drug that can save the life of someone who’s overdosing on heroine.
For now, the big question for Campanello is: Will drug addicts start showing up at the Gloucester police department’s door?
“I don’t know," Campanello said. "If they do, that’s great. If they don’t, the issue of where do we fit into fixing the system has been raised. And I don’t think that’s an issue that’s going away. And the attention that it’s drawn is a victory in itself."