The city of Gloucester, located on Massachusetts’ North Shore, about 40 minutes from Boston, is roughly one sixth the size of Providence. Like other Boston suburbs like Lowell and Quincy, this small city has faced an epidemic of heroin addiction, and the death that comes with it. According to the Boston Globe, through the first three months of this year, over two people on average have died of heroin overdose in Massachusetts a day… not including the states three largest cities. The rise in heroin related deaths has been widespread throughout the nation, with deaths nearly tripling in the last three years. In fact drug overdoses claim more lives in our country than gun violence or car accidents. So why is the small, coastal city of Gloucester notable?
Last month, in response to recent deaths, Chief of Gloucester Police Leonard Campanello made a shocking announcement: the department was going to begin helping addicts rather than simply throwing them in jail. It’s an idea that looks so simple on paper; one that probably shouldn’t be revolutionary 2015. The ANGEL program was officially launched on June 1st and in the words of Campanello is designed so that “Any addict who walks into the police station with the remainder of their drug equipment (needles, etc.) or drugs and asks for help will NOT be charged. Instead we will walk them through the system toward detox and recovery.”
Gloucester’s four overdose deaths so far this year, while tragic, pale in comparison to Providence. The state of Rhode Island has suffered 63 overdose deaths so far, most of which coming from the capital city and its immediate suburbs. This is a trend for RI, as last year there were 239 accidental overdose deaths which is up a shocking 73% from 2009. The Providence Police have said that heroin now makes up 80% of their drug investigations and that deals are going down in every corner of the city. They have also estimated that some dealers make as much as $20,000 a day off of the deadly drug, and that one reason Providence’s heroin trade is booming is due to cheaper prices than Massachusetts. An overwhelming amount of these heroine overdoses are due to the illicit drug Fentanyl. Fentanyl is a synthetic painkiller that is common in illegal markets, and can suppress respiratory function, causing death. Many of the victims have purchased heroin believing it to be pure, but instead it is laced with Fentanyl, which makes it cheaper. 74% of overdoses in 2014 involved the drug and it is believed to be responsible for the majority of the 2015 deaths.
Heroin first took our cities by storm in the 60’s and 70’s before giving way to the crack era. By the 90’s heroin was no longer America’s drug of choice and crack cocaine had taken its toll. But now heroin is back on the rise and is a problem in virtually every area of the country and if you look closely it becomes apparent why. Back in the mid 90’s, doctors began to prescribe opioids as pain killers and they were recklessly distributed, making pharmaceutical companies rich. By 2012 259 million prescriptions for opioids had been written, which doesn’t include illegally obtained painkillers. Many of todays heroin addicts are regular people, often veterans, who became addicted to these painkillers and, with time, could no longer afford to pay for these pills. They turn to heroin as a cheaper alternative and the rest is history. Addicts are looked down upon in our society but what about the companies that recklessly profited off of opioid painkillers? In fact in 2007, the makers of Oxycontin plead guilty to deceptive marketing, a criminal offense. In many ways companies like this are responsible for heroins surging comeback in America.
The feedback to Gloucester’s ANGEL program has been a little skeptical, but mostly positive. Since the announcement, out-of-state rehab facilities have offered their services to the program and have even suggested that they could pay for transportation. The real key to getting the program to work is that users have to come forward and trust that this is actually the best option. Relations between police and citizens is at an all time low right now and often for good reason. The key to fixing that is that both sides must work together. “Someone has to take the first step, that’s all we can do — take the first step towards the building of trust and show that we are good on our word and see addiction as a disease and treat it as such,” says Chief Campanello, “We’ve come to a consensus as a department that we’re not going to arrest our way out of the addiction problem.” In addition to the ANGEL program, Gloucester police will now be required to carry around Narcan, an opioid antidote that can stop an overdose.
Gloucester’s program is similar to the LEAD program that Seattle put in place four years ago. So far LEAD has shown that users who participate are less likely to commit more crimes than those who are arrested. ANGEL has had some early success as well; since it’s June 1st launch the program has already had five participants.
So my question is how long until Providence catches on? It’s evident that our city is facing a major problem and that our current tactics of combating it do not work. Luckily, last year Providence police were trained and equipped with Narcan and there have been several cases where they have been able to save lives. Due to the distrust and tension between people living in the inner city and police, a program like ANGEL could be difficult in Providence. Many addicts would be hesitant to come forward and join, but without both sides working together there is no way to solve Rhode Island’s deadly heroin problem. It seems obvious that Providence should follow suit but for now all eyes are on Gloucester to see if ANGEL can sustain its success.