Gloucester, Massachusetts is quintessentially New England. A seacoast town that survives on its working class ethic and seasonal tourism, it has come face-to-face with an epidemic that many cities just like it increasingly contend with: death by heroin overdose. Unfortunately, Gloucester isn’t alone in dealing with a tragic increase in fatalities caused by dangerous opioids.
Data from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that there were 16,235 deaths as a result of prescription opioids, and an additional 8,257 due to heroin during 2013, the last time period for which this information is available. In the same year, there were a total of 43,982 drug overdose related deaths. In Massachusetts alone, at least 1,000 people died of as a result of opioid abuse in 2014.
What sets Gloucester apart from other cities working to combat the same trend however, is its police department’s unprecedented approach to the intersection of law enforcement and drug addiction. Fed up with learning of yet another heroin overdose in his hometown this past winter, Gloucester’s police chief Leonard Campanello decided to take a new approach.
The latest bout of bad news inspired him to log in to the official Gloucester Police Department’s Facebook page and lay out a policy that has since created a ripple effect across the country. In early March, he posted the following:
“Since January of this year, we have responded to dozens of opiate related overdoses and, unfortunately, the City has seen 4 deaths in this time that are heroin related. While we have been successful in our use of nasal Narcan and have saved lives, 4 deaths is 4 too many. The dangers of heroin and opiate use are notorious. We do a lot to collaborate in awareness, prevention, and treatment and will continue to look for new ways to rid our streets of this poison.
As a police department, let me again make our policy clear:
If you are not involved in opiates or heroin, help us. Inform yourself, call us when you see activity, volunteer. You can make a difference.
If you are a user of opiates or heroin, let us help you. We know you do not want this addiction. We have resources here in the City that can and will make a difference in your life. Do not become a statistic.
If you are a dealer of heroin, opiates or any other poison…We are coming for you. We will find you. We will prosecute you to the fullest extent possible. You will pay the price for making money off the misery of others. It’s not a matter of “if” we find you, it’s a matter of “when.” You’ve gotten your warning. Get out of our City.
This marked the first time a local law enforcement agency declared what amounts to a truce with hard drug users. While Campanello is far from holding a position in favor of full legalization, his desire to limit demand as a means to choke the supply marks a positive step in the right direction for anyone who recognizes the failure of the War on Drugs. As Campanello, who worked as a narcotics officer for 7 years, explained in an interview cited by the Washington Post, “There is no way we can arrest our way out of this. We’ve been trying that for 50 years. We’ve been fighting it for 50 years, and the only thing that has happened is heroin has become cheaper and more people are dying.”
While a black market will continue to exist insofar as drug dealers are prosecuted, treating people as addicts rather than criminals and offering help as opposed to jail time has incentivized coming out of the shadows. For many people, a life of addiction was further fueled by fear of the law. Where does one turn to when they could be arrested for struggling with what amounts to a disease? (An especially pertinent question for people with limited financial resources).
This is a space that the Gloucester police department has boldly stepped into. Throughout the spring of this year, Campanello spent time assisting the first round of addicts who had come to him for help, and preparing for what amounts to the decriminalization of drug use in his city. By May, the police force was ready. Back on Facebook, Campanello laid out the specifics.
“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,” wrote Campanello. He then detailed partnerships the police force had set up with local clinics to ensure that any addict who came to the cops would be seen and assisted immediately.
Campanello then when on to explain that Nasal Narcan, a drug that helps to reverse the effects of an opiate overdose, had been made available at pharmacies throughout the city without a prescription. He also noted that the police department would help to cover the costs for anyone in need of the treatment if they lacked insurance coverage.
Campanello also made note of his plans to take the model he’s implemented in Gloucester to the national level. “I will meet with Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey and Congressman Seth Moulton. I will bring what Gloucester is accomplishing and challenge them to change, at the federal level, how we receive aid, support and assistance,” he wrote.
“I will bring the idea of how far Gloucester is willing to go to fight this disease and will ask them to hold federal agencies, insurance companies, and big business accountable for building a support system that can eradicate opiate addiction and provide long term, sustainable support to reduce recidivism,” concluded Campanello.
After offering aid as opposed to cuffs, many people who were otherwise trapped by their addictions were free to seek help for the first time in their lives. As of mid-August, over one-hundred addicts have sought assistance from Gloucester’s police department and the non-profit they set up to run this innovative program. As the Washington Post reported, one in six people came to the city from out of state. And over eighty-percent of the individuals seeking assistance were under the age of thirty.
The Gloucester model has since gained notoriety, with pilot programs launching in three additional Massachusetts cities, and two in Illinois. While it’s inevitable that some addicts won’t identify the extent of their problem and seek help, treating this epidemic with medical care rather than arrest warrants is a step in the right direction. Campanello said this month that since his program has been in place, heroin deaths have slowed slightly in Gloucester.
It’s still too early to tell exactly what the impact of this program will be, and to what extent it will spread. It’s nonetheless inspiring to see a man like Campanello, who has been on the ground fighting the War on Drugs for decades, recognize that laying down his weapon is the key to victory, counterintuitive as that may sound on the surface. Legality is not the root of this issue; addiction is.
As Campanello so eloquently stated, “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.”