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Category: 2017
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Telegram & Gazette
Date: 8/9/16

Law enforcement, for many years, has had the ability to detain intoxicated individuals if police determined that they represented a danger to themselves or others. Inexplicably, those rules had not been updated to include drug users, even as the ongoing opioid epidemic began to swell throughout the Commonwealth, including in Worcester County where between 2014 and last year the increase in overdose deaths matched or was slightly worse percentage-wise than the state as a whole.

All that is about to change.

Gov. Charles D. Baker Jr. and the state Legislature have approved changes that will allow police to place individuals using heroin or other opioids into protective custody. Rather than arresting them, police will seek out the nearest available treatment facility so that the person can get the treatment and care needed.

The new custody powers are particularly important in Massachusetts, where more than 2,500 people have died during the past two years as a result of drug overdoses. In Worcester County, the death toll in the same period was about 340 and with about a third of those deaths occurring in Worcester. Thousands more across the state have been brought back from the brink of death thanks to the use of Narcan and other overdose-prevention drugs. The medications plunge the user into quick withdrawal, and it is not uncommon for the person to seek out more opioids immediately following the overdose.

Police, as well as family members of addicts, have sometimes lamented the fact that they had little power to force someone into treatment; that the user would be revived and would immediately start looking for another opportunity to get high. This new power will help break or, at the very least, delay that cycle of dependency, allowing caregivers a wider window of time in which to intervene.

There are concerns, to be sure, that the new law represents an expansion of police powers, especially as it involves involuntary commitment, regardless of an individual's wishes. However, most agree that the same approach has helped save lives in the past when applied to individuals who had consumed too much alcohol.

Perhaps a larger reason for concern is that the state’s treatment facilities are already stretched to the limit and that an infusion of new patients may prove overwhelming. For instance, in March, Charles J. Faris, then president and CEO of Spectrum Health Services, said that in 45 years working in addiction treatment he had never seen demand so high, adding that their Westboro inpatient treatment facility had a waiting list of 100 people at any given time, and two outpatient Worcester facilities combined were admitting up to 48 new people each week. Some lawmakers are also concerned that the state needs to do more to ensure that insurance carriers cover the cost of the addiction treatment.

The latest program is in keeping with an ongoing shift toward treating drug addiction as a health crisis rather than as a criminal problem. Take for instance an initiative in Gloucester, where last year the city's police chief mandated that addicts seeking treatment who turned themselves and their drug paraphernalia in to police would not be arrested, but instead would be paired up with a mentor and a treatment plan. The effort has inspired more than 100 participants to take advantage of the program since its inception.

An addict's actions while under the influence are often just one more symptom of a life taken over by substance abuse. Rather than treating symptoms by locking up addicts, many of whom will merely start using again as soon as they are released, the goal should be to strike at the problem itself and work to treat the addiction.

Thanks to lawmakers and the governor, the state -- which has been in the forefront nationally in taking action that includes placing controls on the prescription of opioids -- has taken another step forward in this regard. Gov. Baker has demonstrated a commitment to address the addiction crisis, and his administration noted that the new state budget features a $13 million boost in spending to help deal with the epidemic. A portion of those proceeds will go toward adding 150 much needed additional recovery beds.

Placing people into protective custody will not solve the drug crisis, but it represents another significant tool in law enforcement’s arsenal to help keep both addicts and non-addicts alike safer.