Policy, Social Justice

We need to take a more compassionate approach to the opioid crisis

Emperical evidence demonstrates that compassionate care works - and it's just the solution that politicians are asking for.

The national opioid crisis has been a conversation piece for so long, that the staggering losses due to overdoses rarely makes frontpage news anymore. It’s become an exhausted talking point, where politicians say something has to be done, but rarely have any new ideas on how to approach the issue.

It’s about time that the classic approach to locking up addicts and dealers is turned on its head. Several small police departments think it’s time to try a compassionate approach.

The Massachusetts town of Gloucester made the first attempt at changing the way that police departments treat those suffering from opioid addiction. The city is located on the small island of Cape Ann, about 35 miles northeast of Boston. It’s a town where police often live on the same block as the people they’re serving.

In June 2015, they changed the culture of policing the opioid crisis.

When a person suffering from addiction walks into the Gloucester Police Department, the officers bring that person to the hospital where they are paired with a volunteer “Angel.” That Angel will work with the person to find them a space in one of 12 partner rehabilitation centers to get them into treatment. Research says that in the first year, 400 people were treated by the ANGEL Program.

The program started with a simple promise. “If you have drugs or drug paraphernalia on you,” the department assured. “We will dispose of it for you. You will not be arrested. You will not be charged with a crime. You will not be jailed. All you have to do is come to the police station and ask for help. We are here to do just that.”

Over 100 other departments have instituted ANGEL programs of their own, using the resources in their communities to help those suffering from addiction recover, and move on from this deadly disease.

Some communities may not have the full range of resources as these communities. Huntington, West Virginia is following a model built in Cincinnati, called the Quick Response Team (QRT.)

The QRT combines the efforts of police, EMS, and mental health providers to provide care to patients in the 72 hours after an overdose. The aim is to familiarize the patient with resources that can help guide them to an intervention.

The change in culture was something Huntington desperately needed. In August 2017, the Appalachian city saw over 28 overdoses in a 4 hour period. After that tragedy, the true problem with treating those addicted to opioids became clear – not one of those people received any follow-up care.

In the QRT’s first week, the team sought to reach out to 28 people who’d been treated by emergency services. They were able to connect four people with rehabilitation services to put them on a path for recovery.

The opioid crisis has reached epidemic proportions. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, over 115 Americans die every day from opioid overdose. Traditional methods of policing and treatment have not been successful.

It’s essential that we change the method of attacking the opioid crisis to move away from crime and punishment and towards a method that treats the problem in a human way. The success of the ANGEL and QRT programs comes from seeing the subjects of the opioid crisis as victims or patients, instead of criminals.

There is quantitative evidence that shows that compassionate care works. It is the solution that politicians are asking for.

Now, we have to have the compassion to see addicts as patients and not just criminals.