Ending It

05.08.15 9:08 AM ET

The War On Drugs Is Over (If You Want It)

Want to end the war on drugs? Lobby your local police department. They’ve quietly had the power to end the whole thing this entire time—and some are doing just that.

This week, sick of an opioid overdose crisis that had killed four people in his town of 30,000 since the first of January, Gloucester, Massachusetts Police Chief Leonard Campanello wanted to make certain he didn’t have to investigate another one.

“We are poised to make revolutionary changes in the way we treat this DISEASE,” he wrote in a Facebook post. He wasn’t kidding.

Starting on June 1 in Gloucester, any addict who walks into his police station seeking help will get it—and they won’t face charges. They’ll be assigned an “angel,” like a sponsor, to help them through the transition. And nasal Narcan, which helps in the immediate aftermath of an overdose, is being made available at potentially no cost without prescription or insurance. Campanello swung a deal with a local CVS to make it happen.

“The reasons for the difference in care between a tobacco addict and an opiate addict is stigma and money,” he wrote. “Petty reasons to lose a life.”

Campanello wants to fix the drug problem in his city, not punish those who fell victim to it.

It’s now been 44 years since Richard Nixon declared he would “wage a new, all-out offensive” on drug abuse in what many called the beginning of the War on Drugs. In Massachusetts last year, more than 1,000 people died of opioid overdoses alone—an increase of 33 percent from three years prior.

“Police departments have started to realize through the years that, from a policing perspective, what they were doing simply wasn’t working,” Leo Beletsky, an assistant professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University, told The Daily Beast.

“They’ve tried going after people who use drugs and small-time dealers, and they’re starting to think, ‘Well, we’re out here trying to help people—and the tools we have available are not seeming to help people at all.’”

So police departments all across the country—especially the ones dealing with a new opioid epidemic that academics believe began with increased use of prescription painkillers and cuts across all demographics—aren’t waiting for elected officials to help them out.

Want the War on Drugs to end? Don’t lobby Congress. Don’t petition the president. Don’t even ask your state legislator.

Just convince your police department. Talk to your mayor.

Sound too simple to ever be a reality? Well, it’s already happening.

“We are seeing this as de facto decriminalization,” says Kris Nyrop. “Local government and police departments really do have the power to make phenomenal changes that could chip away at the drug war. I had no idea how much prosecutorial discretion existed before we started (LEAD) and am consistently impressed.”

LEAD is the Seattle-based Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, and it’s a way to use that prosecutorial discretion to get those busted for drug abuse help without ever affecting the user’s rap sheet. It's still operating on a pilot basis, but it goes like this:

“Your officer can tell the guy, ‘Door Number 1 is the King County Jail. Door Number 2 is case management,’” says Nyrop, a public defender who is LEAD’s program director. “Then, if they pick the second one, it’s a direct handoff straight from the officer to the case manager. They are then officially in LEAD. Totally harm-free, and the person who needs help doesn’t have to plead guilty first to get it.”

And since it’s been operating on a trial basis—there are “green light” times that give officers the option to send offenders into the “research pool” for LEAD, and “red light” times that don’t and serve as a control group—the results of the experiment are just starting to trickle in. LEAD is working.

“We just completed the recidivism portion of the evaluation and we now know those who are diverted into LEAD are less likely to reoffend,” says Nyrop.

LEAD members are 60 percent less likely to reoffend, to be exact. The real test, however, might come in the next part of the trial: a cost-offset analysis to see how much LEAD is really costing. In America, the drug war is a $51 billion-per-year gambit, and private prisons take in $3.3 billion of that money annually. So LEAD needs to not only work—it needs to be cheap, too.

“We’re seeing early on that doing LEAD costs less,” says Nyrop. “The results aren’t in yet, but we’re very hopeful. Especially if you brought it to scale, it can cost less. You can close down a facility, or a wing of a jail.”

But Beletsky isn’t sure that money, in this very rare instance, will be the overriding factor for change. In this case, it doesn’t matter if the prison industrial complex is real or not—because cops just want another tool in their toolbox.

“I think the tide is shifting,” says Beletsky. “I think what is absolutely the truth is there was inertia about making changes to this system for so long. Whether there was a vested interest from a purely monetary standpoint, or if it’s path dependence—to use a political science term—that creates its own interest groups, or if it’s, 'This is how we’ve done things, let’s always do things in the same way.’”

“But what law enforcement officers frequently talk about is a language of tools.”

Basically, Beletsky says, cops would love another option to keep drug users off the streets, but he says “Drug treatment in this country is so absolutely abysmal”—the handoff between officer and treatment usually so strained and loose—that the abuser is more likely to fall through the cracks and reoffend without immediate help.

Not with LEAD, however. Not with the Gloucester situation, either. Not with cops who want to help drug abusers—which is almost all of them. In these scenarios, cops are just adding to their own toolboxes.

“The philosophical and rhetorical discussion is shifting,” says Beletsky, “In other words, Gloucester’s not the first place to try this. There’s good evidence in the U.S. that the police want things done differently.”

Want proof? Ask Barnstable, Massachusetts, Sheriff Jim Cummings.

Nine of his town’s residents died of opioid overdoses in just the first nine months of 2014. That’s the most of any town on Cape Cod. For years, he was desperate for ways to help.

“In the past, we’d release the inmate at 10 in the morning,” Cummings tells The Daily Beast. “They’d have counseling at 2 in the afternoon and they wouldn’t show up.”

Barnstable, like Gloucester to its north, is a port town. (Gloucester, remember, is the site of The Perfect Storm.) So the problem doesn’t always start with heroin.

“Those who work in manual labor and, say, the fishing industry have a lot of physical pain. Some tend to self-medicate for that pain, oftentimes with prescription painkillers,” says Beletsky. “You see that up and down the coast.”

But in late 2013, Cummings, too, had had enough. Too many people were dying. He started a program in his jail called Residential Substance Abuse Treatment. Abusers got access to a drug, but not the one they wanted.

It’s called Vivitrol, and it blocks the sensors in the brain that emit the euphoria that comes with heroin. The shot lasts for a month. It’s non-narcotic. There’s no high.

Here’s the thing: It worked. Only 9 percent of those in the program recidivated. It worked so well, in fact, that he came up with a similar solution to the one in Gloucester this week.

“We’ve had calls from parents of people who are addicts about it,” he says. “We’ve been able to hook them up with treatment.”

Cummings pulled off a deal just like the one setup with Gloucester's CVS and worked personally with a local provider, the Duffy Health Clinic, to make sure the $1,000-per-shot medicine was affordable, even for an addict.

“It’s another tool in the toolbox,” he says.

Cummings, a gruff Massachusetts cop with the accent to boot, then tells a story. Before he was Barnstable’s sheriff, he says, he was a state police detective for 23 years. He didn’t have much sympathy for the addicts he threw in jail.

“Junkies were junkies to me. They were bums. They were at the lowest rungs of our society,” he says. “But with this opiate thing that’s been happening, it was important for us to educate ourselves on what addiction is. The opiate has taken over their brain. It’s ‘Get the drug, get the drug, get the drug.’”

Now, Cummings says, he’s trying to let the rest of the country know about his successes. He’ll go to conferences in any state, he says. He’ll “make anything we have available to everybody.”

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“Slowly but surely,” he says. “It’s tough to get the word out there.”

And, Beletsky says, once the word does get out there, change could happen fast.

“Police departments have very broad discretion in terms of how they choose to enforce and not enforce laws,” he says. “Police departments are answerable to the public, and the context has changed.”

Heroin and opioid addiction is now afflicting not just urban areas or poor areas, but suburban ones or rural ones or affluent ones, too.

“At the end of the day, I think a lot of this is related to opioid dependence in big swaths of the country that didn’t have it yet,” says Beletsky. “Police departments are answerable to the public, the context has changed.”

That's why Nyrop’s course of action is to raise hell—but not on the steps of Congress or the White House.

“You don’t need to go through that labyrinthine system. You don’t need to go through Congress. You can implement de facto change right on the ground,” says Nyrop. “It’s about police officers coming to agree, first, that these people are sick, and this is something that can be implemented on the local level without going through some rigorous process.”

Or simply this: If you want to end the War on Drugs, talk to your police department. They probably want to help.