Kudos for Gloucester Police Chief’s Innovative Drug Policy
by Mike Cook
As a follow up to my essay chronicling the history of the heroin/prescription opioid epidemic in Gloucester, I wanted to praise Gloucester Chief of Police Leonard Campanello for his courageous decision to offer active addicts an opportunity to avoid all but inevitable arrest if they come forward, surrender whatever drugs they may possess, and agree to enter a treatment program.
One can be sure Chief Campanello will take some heat for his willingness to treat addiction as the public health problem that it is from some on the Gloucester police department, along with more than a few uninformed and judgmental “civilians” in the city.
In fact, that criticism is already brewing on the city’s right wing version of “Enduring Gloucester”. One blog site is already full of posts criticizing Chief Campanello, with dire predictions the chief’s actions will result in a tsunami of addicts coming down the line and over the bridge to “beat the rap” and take advantage of Gloucester’s sucker mentality – thanks to all of us “mentally defective liberals” who become fabulously wealthy running social service empires paid for by all the aggrieved right wing, law abiding, over taxed, Christian residents of Cape Ann.
But let’s get back to Chief Campanello’s policy shift. This is a major positive step in the right direction for several reasons.
Perhaps the biggest positive is that Chief Campanello’s initiative will, finally, help break down the barriers that long prevented social service and substance abuse treatment providers in the city from working with law enforcement in ways that actually might have helped address drug addiction in a truly substantive manner.
I recall, at the height of the anxiety in the early 1990’s over how HIV might impact the city’s needle using population, their sex partners, and, sadly, their children, doing a presentation at City Hall on needle exchange programs and why the Massachusetts Department of Public Health saw Gloucester, given its long entrenched heroin problem, as a prime candidate city for a pilot needle exchange program.
Law enforcement at that time was one of the most vociferous opponents of even discussing such a public health intervention and, given its influence in the city, it quickly became clear there was no point in trying to educate the community about such programs.
It mattered little such programs were highly structured. Needles, for example, were all numerically coded. Addicts didn’t just come in with any needle to exchange for another. They had to enroll, anonymously, in the program. They then would receive a numerically coded clean needle. When they brought that needle back, they would receive another coded, clean needle.
There were “no questions asked”, but participants in such programs were constantly provided with information and encouragement regarding treatment and the various services available to them when they decided they had had enough and wanted to get clean.
Needle exchange programs also provided epidemiologists with the opportunity to get solid data on the extent to which blood borne pathogens like HIV and Hepatitis B & C were present in injection drug using populations because the returned needles were sent to the state laboratory so that antibody screenings could be done on any residual blood in the returned syringes.
But it was the “bridge to treatment” the exchange programs created in communities like Provincetown and Springfield that proved so beneficial in getting other wise out of treatment addicts connected to services that ultimately led many into treatment.
Unfortunately, community resistance to a Gloucester needle exchange program two decades ago, with much of that resistance coming from law enforcement at the time, meant Gloucester missed out on the benefits such programs were shown to provide.
Chief Campanello’s proposal has all the potential of needle exchange programs of twenty years ago to serve as a genuine “bridge to treatment” for addicts looking to break the mad cycle of their addiction.
It represents a major shift in thinking on the part of law enforcement and will allow the police department and service providers to begin to work more closely together and build the kind of trust between the two systems that was missing for far too long.
Chief Campanello is to be commended for this bold shift in direction and, if the need arises, members of the community who understand the old punitive, enforcement approach to addiction has failed will need to raise their voices in support of the Chief because there are still those others who refuse to accept that addiction is a disease that requires a public health approach to addressing it – not just the “lock’em up and throw away the key” attitude that was prevalent in Gloucester for far too long.
Mike Cook is a long time liberal and gay rights activist who saw the uniqueness of Gloucester from the first moment he drove over the bridge during his move from Cambridge to Cape Ann in 1991 to run NUVA’s AIDS education and services programs.