GNH Lumber February 2024

EDITORIAL: Chief breaks mold on opioid addiction

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HE LOOKED LIKE A KID but he was old enough to be charged as an adult. He offered to do some chores, kept asking for advances for little or no work and then disappeared. Good riddance. A couple of days later the checks he stole from the back of the checkbook when he broke into the house cleared the bank.

Other valuables disappeared too. Unlike money, they’ll never be replaced. He was a junkie, an addict. I understand that addiction is an illness, that the people who have it need help, that many don’t receive it and some who do have relapses. I get that addiction shouldn’t be a crime. It’s what you do to support your habit that can make some drug abusers criminals.

As far as this guy, I didn’t care. I’d helped him out and he treated me like Chatham’s biggest sucker. I helped him by giving him money; he used it for drugs that stoked his illness. Then he came back looking for more when we weren’t home. I didn’t feel bad when he went to prison. But I learned from that experience is that if there’s any way to prevent other people from going through what we did, it’s worth considering. That’s why the project just introduced by Peter Volkmann, the Village of Chatham chief of police, makes sense.

It’s called Chatham Cares 4 U (CC4U) and it will mean that adults addicted to opiods–heroin plus all the heavy duty prescription painkillers like hydrocodone (Vicodin) and oxycodone (Percocet)–can get immediate help by going to the Chatham police. They can turn in their drugs and needles to the police, who will not arrest them for possession. Instead a cop will take them to a drug treatment center, probably in Massachusetts, where they’ll get help if they want to quit.

Has Chatham gone crazy? No. People who have outstanding warrants against them aren’t eligible. Drug dealers are still a target for investigation and arrest. But in terms of drugs in Chatham, let’s start with a reality check: the abuse of opioids is happening here and it won’t disappear on its own. The law enforcement approach we’ve been using, which treats addicted people like criminals just for buying and using drugs, doesn’t work anymore, if it ever did.

This new approach might not work either. Those of us who pay taxes in Chatham may face overtime costs for our part-time police. There’s also the mileage on the police cars. What if the program is popular and we become a magnet for drug abusers? And how come all the drug rehabilitation facilities in the program are in Massachusetts?

That last question is easy: this program was developed last year by the City of Gloucester, MA. It has particular traction there because Massachusetts saw nearly a 19% increase in drug overdose deaths from 2013 to 2014. New York didn’t have the same kind of increase in deaths that year, but we do have a drug problem and overall this state has a shortage of drug treatment beds. Because the CC4U program arranged for access to drug rehab beds, even if they’re in Massachusetts, Chatham will have someplace for drug abusers to go for treatment.

The longer-term solution will require county, state and federal funds that support innovative programs like CC4U–the only one of its kind in the county right now. It also would make more sense if the whole county adopted a program like CC4U in response to what’s being called an epidemic of opioid addiction.

We can’t make progress without an big investment of public funds, and we’re going to pay for this epidemic one way or another.

If we continue to criminalize addiction, we’ll not only face the losses from unsolved crimes that drug abusers commit to feed their habits, we’ll also be financing more police in a fruitless effort to contain drug abuse crimes. And we’ll pay more for prisons to hold non-violent offenders not to mention the price tag for secondary impacts like the costs associated with a rise in communicable diseases–HIV and hepatitis C–spread by the risky behavior of addicted people.

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