My Turn: State must take new approach to opioid epidemic

For the Monitor
Thursday, August 24, 2017

It is no secret that New Hampshire has been hugely impacted by the opioid epidemic. Being number two in the nation for drug deaths is not the kind of national ranking we are accustomed to. The federal government has declared the opioid epidemic a “national emergency,” one that New Hampshire has been at the center of for some time. Like other major disasters, it is hard to find someone in our state who has not been touched by the opioid epidemic.

In responding to any emergency, an immediate reaction is needed. The success of that immediate reaction often requires decision-making based on experience. But sometimes, when the emergency is unprecedented and complex, it is necessary to combine experience with more novel problem-solving solutions. It’s time for New Hampshire to try some new approaches in response to this emergency.

One option, which has the benefit of experience from other states but is a unique approach for New Hampshire, is Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion. Recognizing that our traditional methods of dealing with drug use have not stopped this opioid emergency – i.e., we have not been able to incarcerate our way out of our drug problem – New Hampshire should embrace LEAD.

LEAD allows law enforcement discretion to connect someone with drug issues with a case manager rather than arresting them. This form of “pre-booking diversion” enables the case manager to assess individuals and decide which course of action will work best for them.

Perhaps they need drug treatment, medical care, safe housing, emotional support or help finding a job. In any case, LEAD recognizes that jail is not the answer for getting people to stop using drugs or to save lives. So far, 28 states are exploring, developing, launching or operating a LEAD program. New Hampshire should be added to this list.

LEAD started in Seattle in 2011 and has shown promising results, with 58 percent of participants less likely to be arrested again. LEAD improves coordination among multiple stakeholders – social workers, law enforcement, defense lawyers, treatment professionals – who too often have been working in silos.

LEAD data also demonstrates improvements in the health and well-being of participants who struggle with multiple, co-occurring problems such as poverty, drug use, and medical and mental health issues. For taxpayers, LEAD has generated huge savings, because individuals can avoid the costly approach of court and incarceration.

As a criminal defense lawyer in our state, I have seen too many people go through the court system who don’t belong there. I’ve worked with individuals who make life-changing mistakes and never get a second chance. I’ve witnessed the ways in which our criminal justice system is inadequately positioned to deal with the complexities of the opioid epidemic. LEAD represents a step forward, principally because it involves law enforcement enabling and embracing a public health approach to this crisis rather than relying on punishment.

How can LEAD happen in New Hampshire? Our U.S. senators have been showing the way.

Sen. Maggie Hassan has supported funding for LEAD, and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen has gone even further by using her position on the Appropriations Committee to secure funding for LEAD. The final funding bill must still be negotiated with the House, but this represents a great opportunity for our state, and Shaheen should be applauded for her leadership on this issue.

The reality is that there is no one, sure way to address this emergency. But we have to try new strategies and not just rely on what we have done in the past. LEAD is not a panacea for the opioid crisis, but it is a step in the right direction, and may very well save lives.

(Katherine Cooper is the executive director of the New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.)