(The City of Gloucester, Massachusetts)
Over the past two years, the United States’ addiction to opioids has come into full view. With users injecting heroin on public transportation in Philadelphia and rural areas such as Vermont witnessing an influx of guns related to the drug trade, the larger ramifications of the opioid epidemic are emerging – and it is not pretty.
Deaths relating to drug abuse are surging, as people turn to substance abuse as a release from the stress of a stagnant economy and flat-lining social mobility. Nationally, 78 people die each day from opioid overdoses.
The cataclysmic rise in heroin use stems largely from widespread prescription pill abuse, a result of over a decade’s worth of seemingly indiscriminate dissemination from the medical profession of powerful painkillers of the opioid family. After becoming addicted – and running out of prescribed pills – people from all areas, rural and urban, have found a cheap and readily accessible alternative in heroin.
The costs – both economic and social – are immense. But some cities and organizations are exploring ways outside of the failing war on drugs to deal with the issue, treating the the opioid epidemic as a public health emergency rather than a purely criminal matter.
Last year, the City of Gloucester in Massachusetts began the Angel Initiative – a program that permits users to turn in addictive substances in return for a dedicated volunteer to help them find services from housing to drug rehabilitation. Users can participate in the program without incurring any criminal charges relating to drug possession or use.
After a year in operation, the program appears to be working.
Compared to the first five months of 2015 in Gloucester, during which 5 heroin users overdosed, there has only been one overdose death related to heroin in 2016.
According to Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello, the ripple effects of the program are also positive: “It appears that crimes that are ancillary to the disease of addiction—the crimes of desperation: shoplifting, larceny, smash and grabs—have declined since the beginning of the program.”
Indeed, drug-related crime in the city has dropped 27 percent.
But it remains to be seen if the Gloucester’s model is adaptable to other cities. Gloucester is a small, ethnically and culturally homogenous city with just under 29,000 inhabitants. It has a high median income and a progressive sensibility – factors that may play into the success of a forward-looking program for which city officials were able allocate funding.
At the very least, however, the Angel Initiative serves as a reminder that an alternative to the ill-begotten war on drugs is feasible. Continuing to criminalize a public health emergency will only further exacerbate the dire conditions plaguing U.S. citizens caught in the throes of addiction.