GLOUCESTER — This rough-edged fishing city, burdened for years with a stubborn drug problem, is embarking on what its police chief Tuesday called a fundamental, far-reaching shift in the way it addresses opioid addiction.
Working with Addison Gilbert Hospital, local pharmacies, and an on-call network of volunteers, Gloucester is poised to make its Police Department a gateway to help for drug addiction rather than a path to jail, Chief Leonard Campanello said at police headquarters.
“Addiction is a disease and should be treated as such,” Campanello said. “As a community, we believe it’s the right thing to do.”
Many communities in Massachusetts, where more than 1,000 deaths were linked to opioids in 2014, have begun forming task forces and pooling resources to fight back. But in Gloucester, the Police Department’s determination to play a leading role in treatment and recovery stands out.
Under the city’s plan, addicts who seek help at the police station will be paired immediately with on-call volunteers — called “angels” — who will take them to an emergency room, if necessary, and help find detox, treatment, and other services afterward. The addicts will be allowed to leave drugs and paraphernalia at the station and not face criminal charges.
The city also is prepared to pay for naloxone, a drug that reverses opioid overdoses, for anyone without insurance. Campanello said the money will come from assets seized from dealers in drug investigations.
“I can’t think of a better way to use this money than to take it out of the pockets of criminals” and save the lives of the addicts they prey on, Campanello said.
Naloxone, often marketed as Narcan, already is available without a prescription at local pharmacies, the chief said. Its growing use has prompted criticism that it encourages addicts to abuse opioids because they know potentially fatal overdoses can be reversed with Narcan administered by a friend, relative, or emergency worker.
Campanello dismissed those complaints.
“The fantasy world is that we never want to use Narcan. The reality is we need Narcan because it gives us another chance at that addict,” the chief said.
People will be able to obtain one dose of Narcan per month, Campanello said. The pharmacy will bill the city for the orders it fills but will not divulge the names of its customers.
In addition, Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken said, the city is working in partnership with Lahey Health, which operates Addison Gilbert, to provide “fast-track” medical assessments for addicts who seek help through police.
“We’re going to be proactive,” the mayor said. “My thinking is that this is the first step.”
Joan Whitney, director of the Healthy Gloucester Collaborative, said Gloucester has seen a decrease in drug fatalities over the last decade but said a surge in suspected opioid deaths early this year raised alarms.
Through March, four deaths are suspected to have been caused by opioids, she said.
The mayor said that sense of alarm was palpable Saturday at City Hall, where the plan was outlined before a capacity audience at a public forum that heard pleas for help from worried residents and local officials.
Campanello said he will travel to Washington next week to meet US Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey, as well as US Representative Seth Moulton, and discuss Gloucester’s approach to the opioid epidemic and explore whether more federal assistance can be provided for prevention and treatment.
Campanello outlined the city’s plan on a Facebook post Monday that had been shared more than 16,000 times by late Tuesday.
In his trip to Washington, Campanello wrote in the posting, “I will bring the idea of how far Gloucester is willing to go to fight this disease and will ask [officials] to hold federal agencies, insurance companies and big business accountable for building a support system that can eradicate opiate addiction and provide long-term, sustainable support.”
Gloucester’s initiative, which is scheduled to begin June 1, drew praise from police and health officials around the state.
Bill Sprague, president of Bay Cove Human Services, which is among the largest providers of drug treatment in Massachusetts, said Gloucester is “thinking outside the box.”
“I think anything that makes it easier for people to get connected to treatment is a good idea. That’s the bottom line,” Sprague said.
“There are so many people struggling with drug addiction. Anything we can do to make it easier and encourage people to get treatment should be applauded.”
A. Wayne Sampson, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, credited Gloucester for devising ways to make the police a partner in the recovery process.
“Any person that is drug dependent and has the strength to walk into a police department and ask for help, there’s nothing wrong with that at all,” Sampson said. “But that doesn’t happen very often. . . . This is a very good program that they’re trying to get going.”
The effort also received support from Vic DiGravio, president of the Association for Behavioral Healthcare in Natick, the trade association for mental health and addiction treatment providers in Massachusetts.
“We support anything that diverts people from the criminal justice system and into treatment,” DiGravio said. “We have a serious opioid epidemic. What we’ve been doing historically hasn’t worked. If people have innovative ideas, we should be embracing them to get people treatment as quickly as possible.”
Read the facebook post below: