My Turn/Sullivan: Expanded help for addicts

‘Angel’ programs should be based in health care, not law enforcement


Published: 3/9/2016 6:22:52 PM

The Gloucester Police Department’s Angel Program helps saves lives. We should all be thankful for the help given to over 400 addicted persons coming into the care of Chief Campanello’s police department. The current opioid crisis requires every community to come together to help get addicted persons into treatment and long-term recovery.

I truly believe there is a better path addicted persons should be able to take as an alternative to checking into a local police department. Addiction is a disease and drug addicted persons should be welcomed and helped at specially designated hospitals and community health centers.

We don’t go to a police station when we have the flu, diabetes or a heart attack. Addiction to heroin or other drugs should be no different. The first and best option in every county in Massachusetts should be a health care facility. Over the past year, we have made great strides to educate the public that addiction is a disease. We have a statewide campaign to end the stigma of addiction, the greatest barrier to people seeking treatment. Going to a police department for a chronic disease sends the wrong message-that addiction is a crime. Shifting the key entry point to treating this disease to a police department clearly illuminates a broken health care system. The medical community, through two decades of overprescribing opioids, helped fuel this opioid and heroin crisis. It should be a part of the solution by being the first point of intercept for people in crisis. Let’s have our community “Angel” programs based at a designated health care facility.

The Angels of Gloucester are a godsend and might be better deployed at a local hospital. The crux of the current legislation is about how drug users dispose of their last cache of drugs. These drugs could be anonymously deposited in a secure drug drop box, located in one of over 200 police stations, on the way to the hospital.

Massachusetts General Hospital and Athol Hospital each have an outstanding model for welcoming and assisting addicted persons, particularly those experiencing near-fatal heroin overdoses. Upon admission, addicted persons and overdose victims are helped by a health care navigator and recovery coach to get immediate and long-term help. We need to smartly allocate resources, insurance reimbursements, and funds into hospitals and health centers so we can saves lives, all with the help of our community angels.

The eleven Massachusetts district attorneys are leaders in their communities in preventing substance abuse and advocating for addicted persons getting treatment services. One of the best crime prevention strategies is moving drug users toward quality treatment and recovery services. The Essex and Northwestern DA offices each have innovative drug diversion and treatment programs for drug users, in lieu of prosecution.

Over two years ago our Northwestern DA office and its health partners trained over 70 police, fire and EMS trainers to deploy their respective workforces to administer Narcan. We purchased Narcan from drug forfeiture proceeds so these first responders could save lives. Our highest priority was to help overdose victims to live another day with the hope of treatment and recovery. We did so because it was the right thing to do.

We also helped create opioid task forces in Hampshire and Franklin counties to prevent addiction, reduce overprescribing and get people into treatment and recovery. Other district attorney offices and law enforcement agencies are equally committed to addressing this opioid epidemic.

My current opposition to the House bill has nothing to do with the good work of the angels. The opposition is about the incomplete, misleading and poor statutory language that would give immunity to drug dealers and saddle police departments with drug evidence. Hopefully, our legislators can fix the wording of this bill to make angel programs work for those communities that choose either a health care or police model.

In the meantime, let’s all work together on the opioid crisis by demanding that our health care system steps up to the plate to give treatment on demand. With the same collaborative spirit of Gloucester citizens we can build an accessible and welcoming health care model for everyone suffering from addiction. Our health care system and treatment providers can and should be “Our Better Angels.”

David E. Sullivan is Northwestern District Attorney.

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