Massachusetts Police Chief Offers Heroin Addicts Treatment, Not Incarceration

More than 140 drug addicts have come into the Gloucester, Massachusetts, police department during the last three months, but none of them was in handcuffs. Instead, they turned themselves in, taking advantage of a first-of-its-kind program that allows active addicts to walk in, hand in their drugs and get immediate treatment.

In a radical departure from the lock ’em up mentality that has dominated U.S. drug policy, Gloucester police Chief Len Campanello’s “Angel Program” sends heroin and prescription painkiller addicts off to treatment beds instead of jail cells. The department assigns one of its volunteers — or “angels” — to guide anyone in need of help through the process. Campanello is present at most of the intakes. The sweeping policy change that would generate worldwide publicity went into effect in June. “As a community, we decided we should do something to erase the stigma by disassociating drug abuse with criminal penalties,” says Campanello, a former narcotics agent who launched the effort. “The supply side can’t be ignored, but the attack on the supply side has failed. We need to address addiction with evidence-based therapy.”

Many of those seeking rehabilitation have come from out-of-state, one from as far away as California, and all have been placed into rehab programs, the cost of which is covered through publicly funded treatment and private insurance, “scholarships” from treatment providers and money police have seized in drug busts.

The Angel Program Goes Viral

The idea has quickly taken off. To date, more than a dozen police departments and 40 treatment centers in 17 U.S. states have joined or partnered with Gloucester police to offer their detox and rehabilitation services. The Lee County Sheriff’s Department and Dixon Police Department in Illinois became the first agencies to directly implement the Gloucester model. Meanwhile, the mayor of Boston is looking at the Angel Program for the state’s biggest city. Further support has come from pharmacies such as CVS and Walgreens, which have worked out deals with police to make the anti-overdose medication naloxone (brand name: Narcan) available at little to no cost.

Drug overdose deaths are the leading cause of injury-related death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Deaths from heroin use nearly quadrupled in the last decade, according to a recent CDC report that blames much of the crisis on the abuse of prescription painkillers. In Massachusetts, opioid abuse was cited in the deaths of 1,256 people in 2014, up from 939 in 2013. In Gloucester, the oldest seaport in America, with a population of just over 29,000, there were three overdose fatalities in 2014. But by March 6 of this year, the number already stood at four.

That’s when it became clear to Campanello that it was time to stop arresting addicts and start treating them. In May 2015, the department announced on its Facebook page that it was “poised to make revolutionary changes in the way we treat this DISEASE.”

Asking Treatment Providers and Insurers to Step Up

Treating drug addiction like any other chronic illness, be it diabetes, cancer or heart disease, represents a paradigm shift in police thinking. “People have been taught a certain way their whole lives,” Campanello says. “I’m not judging them, but they are going to get smart about it or watch someone in their family die from it.”

Law enforcement can’t carry the ball forever, though. “We don’t want to have to be a part of this,” says Campanello. “We’ve been slapping treatment providers and insurance companies in the face [since the program began]. Why is the police department able to get 140 people into treatment but upstate New York can’t get a detox done for three months?”

To turn up the heat, Campanello returned to Facebook with this warning:

“Dear Providers, Insurance, Pharmaceuticals:

Step it up. There’s going to be a lot more people in treatment than incarcerated or dead. We aren’t going to do your job forever and quite frankly … if you tried to do ours, we’d do something about it.

Your pals in Law Enforcement”

To push for change at the highest levels, Campanello recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to talk about what Gloucester was accomplishing and lobby lawmakers and White House officials to earmark federal drug seizure funds for rehabilitation and increase funding for medications such as naloxone.

For its part, the White House in August launched a one-year, $2.5-million experiment that pairs drug intelligence officers with public health workers to trace the sources of heroin and increase overdose monitoring in the hardest-hit areas of the U.S. Eastern seaboard. The money will also go to train first responders on how to use naloxone.

Michael Botticelli, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said in a statement that the new strategy “demonstrates a strong commitment” to addressing the heroin crisis. For his part, Campanello says it amounts to a “drop in the bucket,” and that he’d like to see the money go to treatment.

Better news for Gloucester police came later in August when it was announced that naloxone would become more widely available in Massachusetts. In a settlement with the state, naloxone-maker Amphastar Pharmaceuticals will be required to pay $325,000 to the Commonwealth’s Municipal Naloxone Bulk Purchase Trust Fund to allay concerns from Attorney General Maura Healey about price-gouging. The cost of the drug has risen from about $15 per dose in 2014 to more than $30. Campanello says he has encountered police departments across the country that are paying up to $220 per dose.

With calls coming in every day about the Gloucester initiative, Campanello hopes to have a network of Angel Programs across the nation within six months. But much work lies ahead, for both those working to redefine the way police treat addiction and the addicts themselves. The police chief’s unwavering stance that addiction is a disease, not a crime, by its very nature comes with the knowledge that relapse is possible, even likely, for many who have come to the police seeking help. His message to them? “Come back. We will help again.”


Photo of Police Chief Len Campanello courtesy of the Gloucester Police Department

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One Response to Massachusetts Police Chief Offers Heroin Addicts Treatment, Not Incarceration

  1. Avatar
    Scott B September 14, 2015 at 11:39 am #

    Thanks for sharing this program, which has huge potential. If proven effective, just think about what social wrongs will be corrected, without using a wrong-headed approach of punishing those who need our help.

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