In a recent high-profile speech at the National Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta, President Barack Obama reaffirmed his Administration’s approach to addiction as a “public health problem, and not just a criminal problem.”
In its various iterations, the adage that “we can’t arrest our way out” of raging opioid overdose and addiction crisis now figures prominently in policy discussions at all levels of government.
This is, a welcome—and overdue—development. Opioid overdose, including deaths resulting from prescription drugs like Oxycontin as well as their chemical cousin heroin, is now killing as many as 80 Americans daily.
The precipitous rise in opioid misuse and overdose has occurred despite extraordinary financial and human investments in drug law enforcement, mass incarceration for drug-related crimes, and other criminal justice approaches. But the emerging rhetoric that an alternative, “public health” approach is necessary to curb the opioid crisis has yielded few actionable specifics for those on its front lines—police and other law enforcement officers.
As often happens, innovation has come from the bottom up.
One of the most widespread initiatives has been to equip police officers with the overdose antidote naloxone. First introduced as a tool for law enforcement in New Mexico in 2004, it has recently expanded to police forces across the country, on the principle that police are often the first to arrive at the scene of an overdose. (This is especially true in rural locales and other settings like tribal areas, where emergency medical service response times can be substantially longer than those of law enforcement personnel.)
Nationwide, law enforcement officers outnumber medical first responders by approximately a factor of three. Several hundred police agencies have now trained and equipped officers to resuscitate overdose victims, reversing over one thousand overdose events.
Aside from this direct role in rescue operations, law enforcement can also contribute to overdose prevention through other activities. These could include disseminating information about signs and symptoms of overdose, advice on accessing naloxone, promoting Good Samaritan (criminal amnesty for overdose victims and witnesses who call for help) policies, and referral to available addiction treatment programs.
A growing number of departments are embracing these kinds of outreach activities. For instance, Boston PD has recently formed an Opioid Response Unit, which provides education and resources to overdose victims and their families.
Another effort introduced in Gloucester, MA offers amnesty to anyone who presents at the police station seeking help to access substance use treatment. The so-called “Gloucester Angel Initiative” program has helped to launch a national movement: More than two dozen police departments have adopted similar policies, and recently formed The Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative (PAARI).
Editor’s Note: Gloucester, MA police chief Leonard Campanello describes his initiative and why he launched it in TCR last month.
Finally, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) programs offer a structure for pre-arrest diversion available to drug users and other non-violent offenders. First introduced in Seattle, LEAD provides access to a broad range of housing, job training, and other social services.
These efforts can offer unique benefits. Police professionals often have close interaction with hard-to-reach groups that are most at risk for substance abuse and overdose. They also promote operational collaboration with public health agencies, resulting in improved information sharing and other synergies.
In addition to direct public health benefits, police overdose response, public education, and referral programs can help both police agencies and the communities they serve.
A closer understanding of drug misuse, its root causes, and evidence-based prevention and treatment tools can empower criminal justice professionals and institutions to achieve better results. At the same time, a shift in police attitudes towards addiction can increase trust and communication with drug users and their families, as well as in the community at large. At a time of serious challenges to community-police relations, reaffirming law enforcement’s dedication to public wellbeing can strengthen collaboration with civil society, promote officer job satisfaction, and ultimately help police in their core public safety mission.
But a number of challenges remain before the “public health approach” rhetoric can be translated into evidence-based policing practice.
With the exception of Seattle’s LEAD program, the impact of these public health-oriented policing initiatives remains unclear. As we struggle to contain this crisis, their rapid dissemination has proceeded organically in the near-absence of robust evaluation that could inform their design and tailoring.
For example, it is not clear whether training and equipping police to conduct overdose rescues is equally cost-effective in urban areas already well-served by professional medical response, as it is in rural or tribal locales where medical first responders arrive with substantial delay.
While these innovations have certainly expanded the traditional law enforcement toolkit, they have yet to challenge our reliance on the more traditional drug law enforcement. Conducting interrogations at the scene of an overdose, using prescription drug monitoring data for investigative purposes, and charging small-time dealers with homicide for supplying drugs to overdose victims may be perceived by law enforcement officers as deterrents to substance misuse.
Unfortunately, rather than promoting public health, these actions can inadvertently fuel the very problems they seek to address.
Treating every overdose event as a crime scene and charging overdose witnesses with drug-induced homicide can deter help-seeking during overdose emergencies. Using prescription drug data to identify and prosecute patients can undermine trust between people with substance use problems and their providers, pushing vulnerable patients away from getting help at a time when they need it most.
At the policy level, proposals for higher-intensity enforcement measures and a renewed focus on legislation extending drug trafficking sentences run at cross purposes to 911 Good Samaritan laws and other amnesty measures.
To be clear, we do need accurate and timely information about dangerous street drugs and prescription drug patterns. But the work of gathering and applying this information must be done with a clear vision for the life-saving goal in our effort to mount an effective response to the opioid crisis. We must acknowledge what we have learned by now from experience: that wielding the stick of criminal justice against street-level drug use does little to stem it, while also driving users underground, away from helping hands.
To make a real impact in curbing the current crisis, police agencies can benefit most from evidence-driven guidance to translate the “public health” approach heralded by policymakers and community leaders into street-level operations. This is the real opportunity before us for shared innovation and exchange.
Leo Beletsky is an Associate Professor of Law and Health Sciences at Northeastern University. He’s on Twitter at @leobeletsky