“Addiction itself is not a crime, it’s a disease.”

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The door of a police car that says "to protect and to serve"

If you walked into a police station, told the officer behind the desk that you’re addicted to drugs, handed over your equipment (needles, etc.) and/or illegal drugs, and asked for help, what do you think would happen?

You’d be in trouble. You’d be arrested. Simple as that.

Unless, that is, you live in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where, beginning June 1, 2015, people with drug addictions who do the above will receive something different: help.

In a May 4 Facebook post, the Gloucester police department announced a revolutionary shift in how it will work with people who are addicted to drugs who present themselves at a police station. Each one will be assigned an “angel”—not within days, but right then and there—who will guide them through the system toward detox and recovery.

That’s not the only help the police department is offering. They have worked out a deal with CVS and a local pharmacy chain to allow anyone access to naloxone (brand name Narcan), a drug that often reverses the effects of opioid overdose. And guess how the Narcan will be paid for? With money that law enforcement has seized from drug dealers during investigations.

The reason for this radical change in how Gloucester fights addiction—from punishing people with the disease to helping them recover—was tragic: in 2015 so far, opioid overdoses have caused four deaths in the town. The response to the police department’s Facebook post has been overwhelming, with more than 31,000 likes and mostly positive comments.

In an interview with The Atlantic, Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello said, “Addiction itself is not a crime, it’s a disease.… And when we start seeing lives lost because of it, and we don’t see any results from an enforcement standpoint, we have to start looking at it differently.”

It takes a lot of courage for Chief Campanello (who’s a former narcotics detective), the Gloucester police department, and city officials to rethink their entire approach to reducing the terrible price of addiction in their community. And from those of us at the Drugs & Health Blog, thank you.

Tell us in the comments: What do you think about dealing with addiction this way?

Update: Has Gloucester's "help-not-jail" approach been a success? Find out here.

Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

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