A police chief in a small New England city combating its drug epidemic through a unique program that allows drug users to turn over their drugs and get immediate treatment said Tuesday that there's been a strong early response.
Gloucester police Chief Leonard Campanello said that 17 people abusing opioids like heroin, morphine and oxycodone have so far taken up the department's offer to turn over their drugs and paraphernalia without fear of arrest - as long as they agree to enter treatment on the spot.
He said while the number appears modest, it represents more than three times the amount of people who have died of drug overdoses this year in the seaside community of about 29,000.
The success in Gloucester has caught the attention of other communities, notably Boston, where Mayor Marty Walsh said he's considering adopting the policy for New England's largest city. He called it a "great idea and a great pilot program."
Campanello said it's time for this initiative to become more widespread. "We need to get people into treatment," he said. "If they fail, we need to get them into treatment again. Just keep trying. Arresting them or coercing them into treatment just doesn't work."
The growing interest in the program prompted John Rosenthal, a Gloucester resident and Boston-area businessman, to help Campanello launch a privately funded nonprofit to bolster the effort.
Rosenthal said the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative will help coordinate treatment for those struggling with addiction, support studies looking at the long-term effectiveness of the initiative and help other cities and towns replicate the efforts.
"This program is life-saving, from Day One," Rosenthal said Tuesday. "And long term, it has the potential to change national drug and treatment policy."
The Gloucester program, which experts say is unique in the country, has been gaining steady ground after a slow start.
Campanello said the department didn't see a single taker the first day it was launched on June 1. Since then, he said, there have been about one to two people asking for addiction treatment each day, on average.
After turning themselves into police, Campanello said the program's participants are no longer escorted to the local emergency room for evaluation. Instead, a clinician works with them on a treatment plan and facility location. A volunteer "angel" — sometimes a person who formerly struggled with drug addiction — remains with the person through the three-hour process.
Campanello said that extra costs have been "minimal" to the police department. Any costs incurred — under $1,000 — have been paid from the city's drug seizure money. State funding, he said, covers the costs of drug treatment for participants who are Massachusetts residents with no insurance plans or plans covering treatment.
While most of those 17 seeking treatment in Gloucester have been placed in substance abuse treatment programs in Massachusetts, service providers across the country have also stepped up.
Campanello said about 22 agencies in 15 states have even agreed to pay for the treatment of those without health insurance.