In the United States, there is a long history of treating substance abuse as a criminal justice problem. Alcoholism is an exception due to the legal status of alcohol, but many other drugs came under increasingly restrictive laws in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Marijuana, for instance, went from being discussed occasionally in the press as a sort of exotic curiosity, to being the subject of dire warnings in the 1930s, many from the newly formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics (the forerunner to the modern Drug Enforcement Administration) which warned, in a pre-World War II pamphlet, that marijuana was a “powerful narcotic” in which lurked “murder, insanity, and death” and which somewhat ironically warned that narcotics peddlers might try to adulterate your cigarettes with the deadly weed. The fact that drug use was defined so strictly, by laws such as the Harrison Act of 1914, and the Uniform State Narcotic Act of 1932, meant that the possession of drugs, across a broad spectrum, were increasingly primarily the business of the criminal justice system rather than a matter for the medical profession and for public health officials.
The negative results of overemphasis on law enforcement and a very poor integration into law of a solid medical understanding of addiction as a medical problem – abetted by the fact that addiction, seen as a medical problem, is a very complex and difficult issue to untangle, and which the latest research is only beginning to explain well – are very much with us today. A report from the Columbia University affiliated National Center On Addiction and Substance Abuse makes, well, sobering reading. The online newsletter of the the American Public Health Association remarks, of the report:
“Released in February, the center’s second report on the topic found that of the 2.3 million U.S. inmates, 1.5 million suffer from substance abuse addiction and another 458,000 inmates either had histories of substance abuse, were under the influence of alcohol or other drugs at the time of committing their crimes; committed their offenses to get money to buy drugs; were incarcerated for an alcohol or drug violation. Combined, the two groups make up 85 percent of the U.S. prison population, according to the report, ‘Behind Bars II, Substance Abuse and America’s Prison Population.’”
Let’s stop for a moment and think about that: up to 85 per cent of the US prison population are at the time of incarceration, either struggling with a substance abuse problem, or were under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol when they committed their offense. Combine that with the fact that the United States has one of the highest, if not the highest, percentage of its population in prison than any other country in the world, and it’s not hard to start thinking that just maybe there is something deeply wrong with our long-ingrained national habit of thinking of substance abuse as a crime, and of substance abusers as criminals. The fact that the overwhelming majority of individuals with a substance abuse problem are trauma and abuse survivors only further reinforces the conclusion that in jailing those with substance abuse problems, we are by and large doing little more than, in many cases, further victimizing those who are already victims.
Which is why a small, local pilot program that tries to turn things around, and which is currently making news across the nation, is so interesting. The small town is the village of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and the program couldn’t be simpler: if you are a drug addict, and you want help, you show up at the police station with whatever drugs and drug paraphernalia you have, and you will not be charged. Instead, you will be assigned – immediately, with no waiting period – an “angel” counselor who will guide them through the process of entering a drug treatment program. You also get immediate access to nasal Naloxone, which is used to treat opiate drug overdose (the program was created partly in response to a rapidly rising tide nationally of abuse of prescription as well as illegal opiates.)
The program was announced by the Gloucester police chief on the police department’s Facebook page, by Police Chief Leonard Campanello, and it concludes, powerfully:
“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. I have been on both sides of this issue, having spent seven years as a plainclothes narcotics detective. I have arrested or charged many addicts and dealers. I’ve never arrested a tobacco addict, nor have I ever seen one turned down for help when they develop lung cancer, whether or not they have insurance. 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.”
The Atlantic’s Julie Beck interviewed Chief Campanello in May of this year. In the interview Campanello remarks, “I’ve been a police officer for 25 years, I was in another community, Saugus, Massachusetts, and took the chief’s job here about three years ago. In [Saugus] I was in a plainclothes narcotics capacity for seven years. We got great results, we took a lot of dealers off the street, but it never impacted the users. Addicts could still get drugs readily. I think the policing community is starting to be aware that there is no such thing as the crime of addiction. The ancillary crimes that go with it, possession of drugs, sometimes desperation to get the drugs leads to theft, burglary, things like that, those obviously are crimes. But addiction itself is not a crime, it’s a disease. There’s an expectation among the public and even those who use this drug that the health community is there to help and to treat it as a disease, but the police department is there to treat it as a crime. And when we start seeing lives lost because of it, and we don’t see any results from an enforcement standpoint, we have to start looking at it differently.”
Campanello increasingly came to believe, during his years as a police officer, and in more recent months as he observed the upsurge of drug-related deaths in Gloucester, that the war on drugs often amounted to little more than a war on people. The acid test, of course, is whether or not the program works – in Gloucester, the answer seems to be yes; in the first ten weeks of the program, more than 100 addicts came through the doors of the police station asking for help, and entered treatment. The program does have some restrictions, of course – it is not open to someone with an outstanding arrest warrant, for instance – but to active drug abusers seeking help, it can be life saving; the program even offers nasal Naloxone (used to treat opiate overdose) free of charge to those who come in looking for help, with cost covered by the police force from cash seized from drug dealers. In the same interview Campanello said,
“I think that for us, law enforcement needed to take a more active role, a more compassionate role, in exploring the social problem of addiction rather than the criminal problem of addiction. So that’s what we did. I think law enforcement in general needs to focus on supply as well, but we need to be doing much more with demand. I think that we’re getting close to really proving that attacking the supply is not working and I think that we need to spend a lot more time on the demand. This initiative is one of the ways that we can be compassionate, progressive, bipartisan, and unilateral, because we’re talking about saving lives, and I think the bottom line is it’s the right thing to do. No matter what entity we are, whether we’re the police, whether we’re responsible for the medical field, mental illness, anything, I think this is the right thing to do.”
by Regina Walker