Editorial: The next step in addressing the opioid crisis

Sunday, September 03, 2017

If you were tasked with ending the opioid epidemic in New Hampshire – and granted unlimited authority to make it happen – what would you do?

You could try to arrest your way out of the problem – but it’s too expensive and it’s ineffective. Sweep one dealer off the street and another one moves in. Lock up the users, and they start using again as soon as they are released. In the meantime, you’re spending millions to hire more officers, house more prisoners and handle more court cases, not only for drug crimes but related criminal activity such as petty theft, burglary, prostitution, assault and murder.

Maybe you want to take a more sensible approach and get the users into a treatment facility. That saves lives and money for sure, but what about those who, for various reasons, just aren’t ready to enter treatment?

Like many communities in this country, Seattle faced this very dilemma. So six years ago, stakeholders there joined together to create an alternative to the futile War on Drugs – and it’s working.

Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, gives police officers the authority to redirect low-level drug offenders to a community-based intervention program rather than lock them up. A caseworker then helps them get treatment for chemical dependency or access to mental health care, housing assistance, or job training and placement, for example. Abstaining from drug use is not a precondition of receiving those services. The program works because it is a broad partnership that includes police, district attorneys, public defenders, political leaders, mental health and drug treatment providers, and other service agencies, as well as businesses and residents.

Like Concord’s Housing First approach to ending homelessness – which doesn’t make sobriety a requirement to receive housing – the primary goal is reducing harm through stability.

Last month, Katherine Cooper, executive director of the New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, wrote in these pages that there is “no one, sure way to address this emergency.” LEAD, she said, isn’t a solution for every aspect of the opioid crisis, “but it is a step in the right direction, and may very well save lives.”

We agree, and we hope Gov. Chris Sununu and the state Legislature do as well.

If they have doubts, we suggest that they talk to retired police captain Jerome Sanchez in Santa Fe, N.M., the second city after Seattle to implement LEAD. Sanchez was in the perfect position to see what heroin was doing to his community, and he knew that no matter how many people he and his fellow officers arrested, the problem would remain. Santa Fe now has about 118 people in the LEAD program, and not one has been re-arrested for a serious felony and only 6 percent have been re-arrested for possession. Sanchez, who is now a training and outreach coordinator for LEAD, says there are three pillars to the program’s success: it improves the lives of everyone in the community, it reduces crime and it saves money. LEAD, he said, costs about $6,000 a year per person as opposed to $40,000 a year to lock them up.

We applaud Sen. Jeanne Shaheen for her work securing federal funding for LEAD, and we urge the New Hampshire lawmakers to follow suit. The Legislature should allocate money for LEAD and then work with the LEAD National Support Bureau to determine, through a “request for proposal” process, which police departments are best equipped to implement the principles of the program.

In one week last month in Manchester, there were 42 drug overdoses. It is clear that New Hampshire needs to take a new approach to the opioid epidemic, and Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion is a proven place to start.