Allowing addicts to turn themselves in — along with their drugs — at police stations without fear of prosecution is, to some, a radical idea. Yet it fulfills a fundamental role of the police by promoting public safety. It’s a practice the Gloucester Police Department has encouraged, with heartening results, since last June. Now a Gloucester state representative has introduced a bill to codify the practice across Massachusetts. The proposal, filed by Representative Ann-Margaret Ferrante, deserves swift passage. Pursuing a statewide approach to putting treatment ahead of prosecution would strengthen the effort to stem the opioid epidemic. The bill, which is now before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, would effectively turn all Massachusetts police stations into places where addicts could seek assistance, turning a successful experiment into law.
Nine months ago, Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello revolutionized the way law enforcement officials deal with drug abuse by launching the city’s “angel” initiative. Instead of arrest or prosecution, addicts are offered help. Through the initiative, about 400 addicts have been placed into treatment. The program quickly became a national model: About 60 police departments in 17 states followed Gloucester’s lead, and more than 100 are preparing to launch programs. In Massachusetts alone, more than 20 other police departments have begun similar initiatives.
Ferrante’s bill is aligned with a new drug addiction paradigm. After years of criminalization, substance abuse is now being rightly treated as a disease, and thus as a public health issue. Ferrante’s measure, which has bipartisan support at the State House, also represents potential cost savings. Gloucester’s police department reportedly spends $55, on average, for each addict it helps get into treatment, whereas arresting, processing, and holding an addict can run upwards of $200 per day.
The heroin and prescription drug overdose epidemic is the leading cause of unintentional deaths in the United States. In 2014, 47,000 people died from overdoses, an increase of 14 percent from the year before. Opioid overdoses alone have quadrupled since 2000. Massachusetts can follow Gloucester’s example and become a national model by enacting the Ferrante bill into law. State legislators shouldn’t pass up this opportunity to save potentially thousands of lives.