Editorial on Drug amnesty: Treat the illness, reduce the crime

Before reacting to the recent initiative by the Middlebury Police Department to grant amnesty to drug addicts seeking help, area residents might first ask themselves one question: Is the current approach working?
Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley, who had previously led a narcotics unit for the Wallingford, Conn. police force before coming to Middlebury, doesn’t think so.
Enforcement alone, Hanley said in a story on today’s front page, is an approach similar to playing “whack-a-mole.” Police departments focus on making individual drug busts that simply recur by new players eager to move in on a ready-made market. If you don’t work to reduce the level of addiction, the market will continue to thrive and along with it, the related crime caused by users feeding their drug habit.
The program the Middlebury Police have adopted is pattered after the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative that is being replicated in 34 communities in 10 states. Middlebury is the first to adopt it in Vermont. The program’s stipulations are simple enough: participants will turn over non-prescribed drugs in their possession and be referred to programs and agencies that can help them kick the habit. Addicts seeking help can do so by visiting the Middlebury police headquarters or by contacting a local officer in the field. The person will not be arrested and charged for possession of the drugs in their possession, and treatment will be arranged through a partnership with the TurningPoint Center of Addison County and the Counseling Service of Addison County, both based in Middlebury.
The sea change in approach is best demonstrated by Hanley’s comment that he hopes the Middlebury police will become “a resource for folks with addiction” not a force that instills fear in addicts, who then shun their help and hide their activity.
“By instilling fear of the police in people about the whole arrest thing and the stigma that goes along with that, I don’t think we are helping the problem,” Hanley said, “and we are going to change that. If someone is in crisis and comes to us for help, we are going to help them.”
If that all sounds a little too warm-and-fuzzy for you, strict enforcement against drug dealers is still a priority. In fact, Hanley acknowledges that being tough on crime is an integral part of the solution. It won’t do anyone any good if addicts are identified, helped in a treatment center for a while, then relapse, commit crimes, turn themselves in again, go to retreatment and recycle back through the system — never facing jail time, fines or other consequences that also can contribute to a person finally having the resolve to quit for good.
The questions that arise about the program are many, including:
• what happens with repeat offenders (as in, how many chances do they get);
• what about restitution for crimes committed to support their addiction, such as theft, forgery, and breaking and entry. Furthermore, can a voluntary amnesty program work for addicts who have committed any one of those crimes, or others, and face prosecution for them? Moreover, it’s worth asking how many addicts have notcommitted some crime, and if they haven’t, is that group a threat to society?
• what happens to small children if parents are in rehab;
• how much extra will it cost the town of Middlebury, and are there federal or state programs to help pay the bill?
No doubt the community will learn more about the program (called PAARI) as the Middlebury police put it into action, and a follow-up story can shine a light on those questions, as well as preliminary results at Town Meeting in March. Until then, a tip of the hat to Chief Hanley for being willing to tackle the scourge of drug addiction at its source — as a medical illness that becomes a catalyst for crime.
Treat the illness, the theory goes, and crime will diminish. We’re eager to see how it works in reality.
— Angelo S. Lynn

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