A growing chorus of law enforcement leaders, drug addiction experts and parents of addicts say arresting and jailing heroin users will not stem the surge in deaths and overdoses.
“We realize we’re not going to arrest our way out of the problem,” Manchester, Connecticut, Police Chief Marc Montminy said.
Another approach, pioneered in Gloucester, Massachusetts, shows promise and has been attracting increasing attention around the country. In Connecticut, Groton has adopted it and Manchester is considering a similar program.
Launched on June 1, the Gloucester Angel Initiative makes police the point agency in moving addicts directly into treatment. Addicts are allowed to surrender any drugs and needles they have with the understanding that they will not face arrest and that police and community volunteers called “angels” will help them toward recovery.
About 350 admitted addicts have sought help in Gloucester through the program, department spokesman John Guilfoil said on Jan. 8. As a side benefit, crime fueled by addiction, particularly thefts, dropped 33 percent last summer compared with the summer of 2014, Guilfoil said.
Fifty-three police agencies in the country have adopted similar programs, and two to three more join each week through a partnership called the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, Guilfoil said.
Started in conjunction with the Gloucester program, the organization (www.paariusa.org) describes its mission as fighting the war on drugs “by doing something about the demand, not just the supply.”
Treatment centers from Maine to Northern California have joined PAARI, said Guilfoil, also a spokesman for that organization. Before being accepted as a partner, each center must agree to provide “scholarships” to recovering addicts who lack insurance, he said.
So far, Groton is the only Connecticut police department to join the effort. Groton City Police Chief Tom Davoren said his agency started its program in September. The department’s placement partners are Joe and Tammy Delacruz, who said they are motivated in part by their son’s struggle with drug addiction.
Since September, the Delacruzes have helped about 20 addicts get treatment through an organization they formed called Community Speaks Out, Tammy Delacruz said. Building a network of people familiar with treatment programs and who know who to call at any time of day is vital to success, Joe Delacruz said.
Also important are parents who have suffered the high cost of drug addiction, the Delacruzes said. One of the most determined workers in their organization, they said, is Lisa Johns of Waterford, Connecticut, who lost a son to a heroin overdose in 2014.
The “angels” in the Gloucester program are volunteers who agree to stay with addicts just after they come to police seeking help. The volunteers are there simply as a friendly presence in the initial, often frightening phase of recovery, Guilfoil said.
Although PAARI stresses “No arrest. No jail” in its literature, Davoren and Guilfoil said it is not an amnesty program.
“We can’t say you have amnesty,” Davoren said, “but we have discretion.”
The goal is to get people into treatment, Davoren said, but a police officer who finds heroin in a car during a motor vehicle stop is not likely to believe a driver’s claim that he or she was heading at that moment to the police department for help.
“What we don’t want to be is a get-out-of-jail-free card,” he said. “We know that folks who are addicted can be extremely manipulative.”
“`Amnesty’ is not the word,” Guilfoil said. “The police department is saying that putting people on the road to recovery is a good thing for the community. Rather than focus on arrests, if we can put 100 people in treatment, then we are preventing crime. It’s not about going soft on crime.”
“If you come to Gloucester,” he said, “we don’t care what you have in your pocket; we care what you have up in your head.”
Although some addicts have surrendered drugs and paraphernalia, most do not, Guilfoil said.
Montminy, in Manchester, said he did his own investigation of the Gloucester program and found that typically, addicts use up the last of their drugs before seeking help.
Connecticut Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane said that was his understanding as well. Kane called the Gloucester model “a very good concept.”
“Getting people into treatment to end the disease is certainly a desirable thing,” he said. “We encourage it.”
Heroin deaths continued to spike throughout Connecticut in 2015, fueled largely by an increase in the number of people overdosing on a mix of heroin and the synthetic drug fentanyl. Deaths from that combination have increased more than sevenfold in less than two years.
In 2013, Connecticut had 257 deaths in which heroin was involved, compared with 325 in 2014. The projected total for 2015 was 381. In Manchester last year, police investigated 10 heroin-related deaths and 12 overdoses.
The spike comes amid increased attention to the heroin scourge from Connecticut’s medical, law enforcement and political communities.
As to why police should take the lead and why addicts would come to police for help, Montminy said cops deal regularly with heroin addicts and can get word out on the streets. He envisioned a card that officers could hand out with a phone number and the question, “Had enough?”
“Nobody wants to be a junkie,” Montminy said. “Nobody enjoys being a heroin addict.”
As in Manchester, police in Gloucester have responded to overdose calls for the same person several times. Sometimes, on the third or fourth call, they find a dead body.
“It’s disheartening for police officers to continue to roll up on a scene and watch that cycle unfold,” Guilfoil said. “This initiative allows them to take an active role in recovery. We want you to survive the day, but there’s an opportunity to survive the rest of your life.”
There are obstacles to launching a Gloucester model program in Manchester or anywhere in Connecticut, particularly a lack of inpatient treatment placements, Montminy said. Paired with that problem, many heroin addicts are unemployed, estranged from their families, and lack insurance or receive government coverage that will not pay for out-of-state treatment facilities, he said. He also worries that many addicts from outside Manchester could overwhelm the program.
In Gloucester, about half the addicts who have sought help have come from outside the area, but Guilfoil attributed the attraction to widespread media coverage when the program began. In fact, the first person to seek help, he said, heard about the initiative through an online report and flew in from California on June 2. That person is still living in Massachusetts and remains in recovery, but another addict who sought help in the early days of the program died in December of a heroin overdose, Guilfoil said.
For a Manchester program to succeed, Montminy said, police have to be assured that they can move addicts immediately into treatment.
“If people walk in the door, I have to be able to place them,” he said. “I can’t tell them to come back when there’s space available. That just doesn’t work with an addicted person.”
Depending on a patient’s needs, levels of heroin detoxification treatment include “medically managed,” in which medical staff are available at all times; “medically monitored,” in which staff are not necessarily on site 24 hours a day; and ambulatory, or outpatient, treatment, said Mary Kate Mason, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Addiction Services. Recently, about 88 percent of state-funded, medically monitored placements have been occupied, which means, on average, up to 20 beds statewide may be available for incoming patients, Mason said.
Dr. James O’Dea, vice president of operations for Hartford Healthcare’s behavioral health network, said the Gloucester model “is a very interesting approach and could offer a lot of benefits.”
Addiction is a disease and, like any other serious disease, the afflicted need medical care, preferably well before they’re in crisis, O’Dea said. As for the resources needed to curb the rising toll of heroin addiction, O’Dea said police are only part of the solution. Communities, he said, must build a capacity to respond to what is often a brief window of opportunity to get people into recovery
Montminy has been meeting with concerned citizens and local and state drug addiction experts to find solutions, and he said those meetings will continue.
Sarah Howroyd, a Manchester native who urged Montminy to consider the Gloucester program and took part in recent discussions with the chief, serves in a state initiative that seeks to distribute the quick-acting overdose antidote Narcan to first-responders in the state. Howroyd, a case manager specializing in mental health and addiction issues, said police are the obvious front line force in the effort to help people emerge from hellish addiction.
“What we really need now is a quicker beeline to treatment,” she said.
It’s too early to say whether the Gloucester model will succeed, but it shows promise, said Robert Lawlor, Connecticut’s drug intelligence officer with the federally funded Office of National Drug Control Policy.
“There are only two choices we’re left with at the end of the day,” Lawlor said. “You either have to arrest them and incarcerate them or get them into programs that are going to change their life cycle.”