If Massachusetts is serious about treating opioid addiction as a disease and not a crime, its lawmakers must take a long, hard look at sensible legislation filed earlier this year by state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante.
Ferrante's hometown of Gloucester has been at the epicenter of the shift in attitudes toward addicts. Police Chief Leonard Campanello's so-called "angel program," in which an addict who comes to the police station seeking help and willing to hand over any remaining drugs or paraphernalia is not arrested for possession but is paired with a volunteer "angel" who helps guide the addict into a treatment program.
Since its inception last June, the Gloucester program has taken in almost 400 patients, and 40 police departments and other law enforcement agencies from across the county have launched programs modeled at least in part on the Gloucester initiative. The key to the success of the program is treating addicts as potential patients, not criminals.
Ferrante's bill would codify that approach. Under the legislation, any addict who turns himself in to police would not face criminal charges for any drugs or paraphernalia they have in their possession when they go to police.
The bill makes it plain: Anyone "who, in good faith, enters a police station and seeks assistance or treatment for a drug-related addiction, or is the subject of a good faith request for such assistance or treatment, shall not be charged or prosecuted for possession of a controlled substance."
The bill has wide support on both sides of the aisle, with Republicans Brad Hill of Ipswich and Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester getting behind the measure.
Ferrante sees the bill as an extension of the state's Good Samaritan law, which protects people with someone experiencing a drug overdose from facing arrest and prosecution if the person calls 911 to bring emergency crews to the scene.
"It's a very simple bill," Ferrante said. "It just extends the protections given someone who may be with an overdose victim to also include the victim as well."
Ferrante already has Campanello's support.
"If the Good Samaritan bill that's in effect right now is giving the person who's next to the person who's dying immunity from possessory charges, then why are we not giving the person who's actually dying the same immunity?" Campanello told the State House News Service. "That's exactly what this bill proposal is doing. We're giving the person who is asking for help, because they know they're in imminent danger, the ability to call or walk into a police department and ask for help, knowing that they don't have to fear being charged for possessory amounts."
The stakes are high. There were 164 heroin- and opiate-related overdose deaths in Essex County alone last year, a 19-person increase from 2014.
The hopeful news is that over the past year there has been a tidal shift in attitudes toward opioid addiction. Relatives of loved ones lost to overdose made mention of it in their obituaries, exploding the stigma surrounding the disease. Law enforcement leaders like Campanello and Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins, who has opened a treatment center in the Middleton Jail, have adopted an enlightened approach. And elected officials from Congressman Seth Moulton to Attorney General Maura Healey to Gov. Charlie Baker have pushed for a new approach to dealing with addiction and the ripple effect of crime, death and broken families it brings.
Ferrante's bill would bring the law into line with the state's most recent efforts. It deserves the support of the full Legislature.