October 1, 2017

Editorial: In Worcester, help instead of handcuffs for drug buyers

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Flickr / Joe Campbell

Worcester Police are initiating a pilot program to divert some drug buyers into treatment rather than sending them straight to jail.

It’s a thought a lot of us have had about the heartache of opioid abuse: People caught buying narcotics on the street need to be rescued, not arrested.

Many of those wrestling with addiction realize it, too, somewhere under the monster of their problem. And increasingly across the country, officials are thinking the same thing, that opioid addicts need help.

Massachusetts has chosen Worcester to lead the way in putting this powerful thought into practice.

Launched Thursday at Worcester Police headquarters, a pilot program funded with a $99,000 state grant is designed to steer opioid users into treatment instead of court dates, fines, possible jail and the continued grip of addiction. The Buyer Diversion Treatment Program will give some people caught buying illegal drugs the option of entering into arrest or detox.

Clearly, the latter choice is better for all concerned, except for the drug dealers and others who put potent, sometimes killer narcotics on the street. A report last week has added to our vocabulary regarding this evolving and frightening problem: We now, in Massachusetts, have not just fentanyl to worry about but its chemical cousin carfentanil, a synthetic opioid even more potent than the fast-acting pain medication that makes morphine feel like children’s Tylenol.

The state’s Opioid Task Force is fighting back hard against drug abuse, and doing an admirable job.

Even so, the numbers of opioid-related overdose deaths county by county have risen alarmingly over the years. Figures from 2017 are, however, showing signs of improvement.

As the Telegram & Gazette’s article Friday about the launch of the Buyer Diversion Treatment Program points out, the governor’s toolkit against the narcotics epidemic has been proactively restocked. In the last few years, Massachusetts has enacted policies addressing safer prescribing and prescription monitoring processes, because many addicts get their start by abusing pain-management pills prescribed by healthcare providers.

The state has also taken steps to increase access to treatment. This is sorely needed. Testimony by drug abusers and their families has, time and again, and often heartbreakingly, pointed to stumbling blocks — insurance coverage, availability of treatment beds, attitudes, laws, professional competencies — on the way to seeking help.

That decision to reach out for help is, we believe, key, and should be swiftly met and reinforced by an able system.

And so we welcome this pilot program to Worcester.

The Buyer Diversion Treatment Program, coordinated by Spectrum Health Services, is a joint effort of the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, the city police department and the office of Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr.

It is “a compassionate program that promotes public safety,” according to Jennifer Queally, state undersecretary for public safety and a former assistant district attorney in Worcester.

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito told the gathering at Thursday’s launch that the program focuses on the buyer side of the problem — people with substance abuse issues — rather than the supply side of illegal drugs. Users from all kinds of backgrounds, we have all come to understand, find themselves a part of the opioid crisis.

“We learned this was an epidemic that had no boundary,” Polito said.

And she noted that pilot program — which officials hope to eventually take to other communities — will help free law enforcement to focus more on the “bad actors” of the opioid problem: the dealers, distributors and others who work the lucrative addiction pipeline.

The city, meanwhile, has been working in other effective ways against the drug scourge. Last week, for instance, the Worcester Department of Public Health held several training sessions around the city on the use of Narcan, or Naloxone, an overdose reversal drug the city has supplied to police and fire personnel as well as some local businesses and agencies. Also, according to the T&G’s story on the launch of the buyer diversion pilot program, City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. told Thursday’s gathering that a drug drop-off kiosk at the police station has brought in more than 750 pounds of prescriptions drugs.

But serious gaps in the community’s response remain to be closed. The pilot program targets active users; but what about people who know they are in danger of relapsing, try to reach out for help, but meet resistance because active users take priority? This happens over and over again, insiders to the issue say.

There is also the often-cited problem of bed shortages at treatment centers; and then, once in,  stays that are too often too short. And like communities across the country, Worcester lacks enough follow-up resources to help keep ex-addicts keep helping themselves, staying sober and on track toward a happy and productive life.

Addiction steals so much from society, beginning with the wisdom and wherewithal of its victims, whose initial mistakes can compound into a terrible existence, and one that can create debilitating societal effects such as homelessness and crime. As frustrating and complicated as the drug problem is, this much is abundantly clear: We have to help addicts get their lives back.

Worcester’s Buyer Diversion Treatment Program is a strong step in the right direction. It’s a softer, thoughtful approach that makes good, solid sense.

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