The town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, has decided to stop putting all heroin and opioid addicts behind bars. Instead, the individuals are given a chance to get clean.
Under a policy launched in June, heroin and opioid addicts who voluntarily turn themselves into the police are fast-tracked into treatment services, with the help of police officers, volunteers, and trained clinicians. The sick aren’t charged with a crime, while public and private insurances and grants by service providers and police cover the cost of the detox. 
Individuals won’t even face charges if they turn in their drugs and paraphernalia.
As of August 14, 109 addicts had turned themselves in seeking help. About 70% are men, and about 16% are from Massachusetts. The police department has shelled out about $5,000 to place all of the individuals in drug treatment.
The policy is unique in the U.S., and not without controversy. Locals are at odds over just how involved the local police should be in combating the heroin epidemic that has swept through the nation, particularly in New England.
“It’s the next logical step in the so-called war on drugs,” says Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello, a former narcotics officer who launched the effort. “We need to change the conversation.”
Gloucester’s lead prosecutor has warned police they may lack legal authority to promise addicts help without charging them. Some treatment providers worry the sudden crush of addicts turning themselves in could tax the already-strained system.
“If several other communities adopted the same practice, it could overwhelm the existing capacity,” says Chuck Faris, CEO at Spectrum Health Systems, a Massachusetts substance abuse treatment provider that’s taken in about 35 Gloucester-referred patients to date.
But Campbell stresses that building trust with addicts is of the utmost importance. The department has teamed up with pharmacies to provide discounted naloxone, which reverses the effects of heroin overdose. It is also pressuring federal authorities to designate some of the money seized from drug dealers for drug rehab.
Campbell says he also wants to shine a light on many hurdles faced by addicts who want treatment within the health care industry.
“I think the question to ask is why is a police department in northeastern Massachusetts placing people into treatment? And if we can, why can’t the traditional methods do it?”
Between 2011 and 2013, heroin-related overdose deaths in America nearly doubled when more than 8,200 people died, according to the CDC. Approximately 939 Massachusetts residents died from heroin- or opioid-related overdoses in 2013, with five of them hailing from Gloucester. 
To assist the Gloucester police, a nonprofit has been set up to support the program and spread the word about the city’s efforts to other communities. The idea is already catching on.
“Traditionally, law enforcement has tried to arrest their way out of the problem,” says Dan Langloss, police chief in Dixon, Illinois, who announced this week his department and the county sheriff’s office are adopting Gloucester’s model starting Sept. 1. “That just doesn’t work.”
Other cities have taken their own approach to the problem. In Seattle, select officers are allowed to redirect low-level drug and prostitution offenders into treatment, rather than jail.
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Julie Fidler is a freelance writer, legal blogger, and the author of Adventures in Holy Matrimony: For Better or the Absolute Worst. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two ridiculously spoiled cats. She occasionally pontificates on her blog.