Drug addicts — including those abusing morphine, oxycodone and other opioids — will instead be taken by an officer to the local hospital emergency room where they’ll be connected with substance abuse clinicians and, eventually, be referred to a treatment facility.
Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello says the program is about trying to change police strategies in the face of a nationwide drug abuse epidemic that’s hit Massachusetts and other New England states especially hard.
“It’s a conversation changer. That’s where we’re going with this,” he said Monday. “For police officers, it’s hard to give up a fight and think of another strategy, but we’ve made a conscious decision to do that because we did not see our supply-side war on drugs having an effect. This is getting at it from a different angle.”
Massachusetts has declared opioid addiction a public health emergency, with policy makers proposing a range of ways to combat the scourge.
Campanello says a citywide spike in drug overdoses this year prompted police to take the unusual step of developing the new police policy.
Gloucester, a historic fishing city north of Boston that’s now a popular tourist destination, has already matched last year’s total of four drug overdose-related deaths and dozens more people have been treated for drug overdoses, he said.
Daniel Raymond, policy director at the Harm Reduction Coalition, a New York-based group that advocates on drug-related policies, says the effort is unique in the country.
“What the police chief has done is cut right through the stigma and address people not as potential criminals but as people with problems,” he said. “I hope that other police departments see what Gloucester is doing and follow their lead.”
But Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett has warned the department it may lack the legal authority to promise addicts they won’t be charged with a crime. That authority, he suggests, rests with judges and prosecutors.