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A Massachusetts police chief refuses to arrest heroin addicts

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

A small-town police chief in Massachusetts said his officers will no longer charge heroin addicts with a crime, even if they have drugs, and instead offer to put them in rehabilitative treatment.

"We're committed to the idea of attacking the demand rather than attacking the supply," Gloucester, Massachusetts, Police Chief Leonard Campanello told Boston.com.

To some extent, this is in line with the harm-reduction approach police departments have taken across the country as heroin use and overdoses rise. Many police officers, for example, now carry naloxone, a drug that can reverse a heroin or opioid painkiller overdose.

Publicly refusing to arrest heroin addicts, especially when they're in possession of the drug, is a rare move for a police chief. But after dozens of overdoses and a forum on opiate addiction in Gloucester, Campanello concluded that it's a better approach in the war on drugs. So instead of arrests, addicts will get an escort to walk them down to a detox recovery center.

Though it's an unusual move from a law enforcement official, it's perfectly in line with the direction the general public, drug experts, and policymakers say drug policy should be moving in.

The public and experts don't want to lock up nonviolent drug users

In a 2014 Pew survey, more than two-thirds of Americans said drug policy should focus on providing treatment over prosecuting drug users.

Academics and experts generally agree with this shift. The World Health Organization, for example, previously called on countries to decriminalize drugs and focus resources on rehabilitation and harm reduction. The idea is that addiction should be treated as a public health issue, not a criminal one.

"We can't arrest our way out of the problem"

Some countries have had great success with trying even radical forms of drug treatments. For example, several European countries prescribe and administer, with supervision, heroin to a small number of addicts who prove resistant to other treatments. These programs allow some addicts to satisfy their drug dependency without a large risk of overdose and without resorting to other crimes to obtain drugs, such as robbery and burglary. Researchers credit the heroin-assisted treatment program in Switzerland, the first national scheme of its kind, with reductions in drug-related crimes and improvements in social functioning, such as stabilized housing and employment.

Federal officials have also embraced relaxed policies. The White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy has taken some steps to emphasize rehabilitation instead of the criminal justice system to combat drug abuse. "We can't arrest our way out of the problem," Michael Botticelli, director of ONDCP, told me last year, "and we really need to focus our attention on proven public health strategies to make a significant difference as it relates to drug use and consequences to that in the United States."

Still, the federal government continues spending billions of dollars on law enforcement efforts against drugs — and some of that spending actually encourages local and state police agencies to crack down on nonviolent drug users. But even where the federal government has made changes, local and state governments haven't always kept up, which is why the Gloucester police chief's decision is so remarkable.

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