Law enforcement explores new program to fight opioid addiction
Steamboat Springs — Faced with the growing problem of opioid abuse and addiction — often described as an “epidemic” — Routt County law enforcement agencies, in collaboration with the Rx Task Force, are researching a new program that would fundamentally alter the way addiction is handled from a law enforcement perspective and replace incarceration with treatment for addicts who want to quit.
The Police Addiction and Recovery Initiative, or PAARI, looks at the opioid epidemic through an entirely different lens, one that shows addiction as a chronic, deadly disease that requires treatment rather than a crime that calls for incarceration.
The program was co-founded by Gloucester (Massachusetts) Police Chief Leonard Campanello and Boston activist John Rosenthal in June 2015.
The idea is simple. Because PAARI attacks the opioid epidemic from the demand side (helping opioid users overcome their addictions) rather than the supply side (arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning opioid users), law enforcement agencies adopting the program operate under the following guidelines.
• Encourage opioid drug users to seek recovery.
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• Help distribute life-saving, opioid-blocking drugs to prevent and treat overdoses.
• Connect people suffering with opioid addiction with treatment program facilities.
• Provide resources to other police departments and communities that want to do more to fight the opioid addiction epidemic.
And apparently, it’s working.
According to a Boston Globe article, in the first six weeks following PAARI’s inception in Gloucester, 36 addicts had followed the program’s protocol, which allows anyone to walk into the police station and express a desire to go to rehab without fear of reprisals.
Instead of being locked up, the addict is paired with a volunteer “angel,” who guides him or her through the intake process as officers work with area hospitals to help find the best program.
Within hours, the person is usually admitted to a detox facility.
In the 16 months since its introduction to the small, New England fishing community where it was born, PAARI has been adopted by more than 100 law enforcement agencies in 24 states.
And if Routt County can find a way to make the program work here, Colorado may become the 25th.
“I’m a firm believer that recovery is a much better option than incarceration,” said Steamboat Springs Police Chief Cory Christensen.
Citing a statistic that approximately 80 percent of heroin addicts become addicted through the use of legally prescribed opioids, Christensen said he was in favor of the PAARI process.
“A lot of these people don’t need to go to jail, they need to go to treatment,” Christensen said. “The challenge is finding the resources.”
Currently, there is only one drug addiction treatment center operating in the area, the Foundry, and while Christensen was complimentary of the Foundry’s program, he said a single facility is not adequate to meet the need.
Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins agreed.
“It (PAARI) basically gives people the opportunity to come to their local police department or sheriff’s office and turn themselves in, and if they’ve got drugs or paraphernalia, turn it in. … We would not prosecute them; we would direct them into the hands of people who could get them some treatment going,” Wiggins said. “That’s one of the programs we’re trying to get off the ground here locally.”
But like Christensen, Wiggins said the main roadblock is the lack of treatment centers in the area.
“The problem we’re running into is that the treatment facilities — having a place to send these people — they’re basically non-existent here,” the sheriff said.
One of the linchpins of the program’s success is providing the addict with immediate help, which is a challenging proposition in Routt County.
Ken Davis, co-founder of the Rx Task Force, said most addicts seeking treatment in Routt County must be placed in treatment facilities on the Front Range or in the western and southern regions of the state.
Wiggins said local officials — along with members of the Rx Task Force — are working to meet this challenge through partnerships with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office and the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Program, or HIDTA.
Officials are also working to form a nonprofit organization tasked with raising funds to support the program.
“If we can’t do it locally, we need to have some kind of system in effect where we can get these people into treatment facilities (either in or out of state),” he said.
Wiggins said he believes establishing the PAARI program here would serve a dual purpose. It would take elicit drugs off the street while removing the demand for these drugs by helping addicts get clean.
“As long as there’s a demand, there’s going to be a supply,” Wiggins said. “If you can reduce the demand, the supplier will go somewhere else.”
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