Opioid battle takes a new direction thanks to local police

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/06/10/opioid-battle-takes-a-new-direction-thanks-to-local-police/

BOSTON – As opioids are killing Massachusetts residents at an alarming rate, the state’s top leaders like Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat, have encouraged local law enforcement agencies to pick up their efforts against drug abuse.

Several agencies have taken the fight beyond simply arresting suspects and confiscating illicit substances, so dramatically changing their approach that they are influencing the national conversation on the so-called “war on drugs.”

Arlington Police Chief Frederick Ryan, for example, formed the Arlington Outreach Initiative, a partnership with the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, where Ryan is a board member. The initiative started last summer out of efforts by Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello and activist John Rosenthal to help addicts instead of treating them as criminals. Since then, the organization has helped dozens of other police departments nationwide implement similar programs, including making greater use of opioid-blocking drugs.

Since starting the program in Arlington last July, Ryan said in an interview Thursday his department had only seen one fatal overdose by February. Before joining the initiative, the city had recorded an average of one fatal overdose a month during the first half of 2015.

“We’ve done around 100 interventions,” Ryan said in an interview Thursday. More importantly, he said, is that since starting the program, his department has only seen one fatal overdose from July 2015 until February 2016.

Statewide, the numbers remain high. The number of confirmed unintentional opioid overdose deaths rose 8 percent to 1,379 in 2015 – an 8 percent increase from 2014 and more than double the number recorded in 2010.

“It is an epidemic and it is a disease,” said Kerri Quintal, a family and juvenile lawyer in North Attleboro. She has worked with addicts and their families for nearly 20 years.

“It doesn’t make sense to keep putting people in jail and not getting them the help they need,” she said. “It’s costing taxpayers a lot of money.”

The outreach initiative took its inspiration from Gloucester’s “angel” program, which encourages addicts to surrender their drug supply and paraphernalia to police without fear of arrest. The department subsequently helps addicts find treatment, working with volunteers.

Ryan said that during one particular operational briefing before his officers took down a known opioid dealer, he asked whether the identities of the dealer’s customers were known.

“The answer was yes, they had a list of users,” he said – at least 14 names. “My second question was, what are we doing tomorrow, when we take their supply of drugs out of circulation, to get these people help? The answer was nothing. We were unwittingly creating a public health crisis in our jurisdiction and doing nothing to get them help.”

Ryan’s department employed a social worker to reach out to users and their families, and started twice-monthly community meetings in a neutral location, such as a church, featuring guest speakers and focusing on educational topics. Although some users attend, Ryan said, the meetings mostly draw family members.

Individuals who suspect that a family member is suffering from addiction should speak to a health-care professional, seek out support and get help without delay.

In addition to the information sessions and personal outreach, both the Arlington and Gloucester programs offer addicts and family members nasal Narcan, a nasal spray version of the life-saving medication naloxone hydrochloride that can stop or reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

Ryan is headed to Washington next week to testify at a U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing to testify on his initiative.

“This whole notion of war on drugs really has to be abandoned,” Ryan said. “This is a complex problem that’s going to require a complex multi-disciplinary approach – that’s the approach we’ve taken in Arlington and really called upon from cities around America.”

So far, the initiative has partnered with more than 100 departments in 24 states. And the Gloucester program has drawn wide attention even President Barack Obama gave formal recognition to Campanello and his department’s efforts in April.

“It’s really about changing law enforcement’s strategy from criminalizing and prosecuting and imprisoning drug offenders to use those opportunities to divert them into treatment options,” Ryan said. He compared the sense of urgency their initiatives use with similar tragedies familiar to Bay State residents.

“What I witnessed after the Boston Marathon bombings,” he recalled: “The sense of urgency brought to that situation was simply amazing.”

“Four people die a day in Massachusetts to the opioid crisis,” Ryan said. “I want to see the same sense of urgency in the commonwealth and the nation.”

Efforts like those being made in Arlington and Gloucester are making a difference, Ryan said.

“We’re changing the conversation around criminalizing addiction and using the level of law enforcement to do so.” he said. “For a long time we have been telling people we can solve the problem on the supply side, and the reality is we can’t.”

“We’re not at war with our communities,” Ryan said. “We want to do sophisticated problem-solving and make a meaningful difference.”

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis.