Among many political figures, there is a general consensus growing that decades of an infamous “War on Drugs” have failed to reduce substance abuse and addiction. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 1.6 million people were arrested on drug charges in 2009, or another person in jail every 19 seconds.
Deeply punitive laws prohibiting drug use have not stopped substance abuse from escalating at alarming rates. A survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that 9.4 percent of U.S. population over 12 used an illicit drug at least once a month in 2013, up from 8.3 percent in 2002. Clearly, a new approach is needed.
Taking the LEAD:
It’s called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD. Writing for The Fix, harm reduction activist Tessie Castillo calls it “one of the most promising reforms” in how law enforcement deals with illicit drug use. What makes LEAD different from previous approaches is that it deemphasizes arrest for low-level drug possession and prostitution charges, directing people towards social services that can get them help, instead of punishment.
By directing people and giving access to housing, employment, treatment, and recovery, police help to deal with the root causes.It also improves the relationship of the police with vulnerable drug users, so they can offer resources for help, rather than simply people to be avoided for fear of arrest.
It is also a little different from court-based programs that offer treatment instead of arrest, in that it gives access to treatment more immediately by not involving courts directly. Each LEAD participant is assigned a caseworker to supply personalized guidance for the participant to get help for her or his specific needs.
The first program began in the Seattle area on October 1, 2011, although it was inspired in part by “arrest referral” programs that have been very successful in England. Since then, internal studies have shown that participants will be between 58 and 87 percent less likely to be re-incarcerated at a later date.
It was also estimated that each participant saves the state $2000 a year because of reduced criminal justice and imprisonment costs. Thus, LEAD reduces recidivism, saves taxpayer money, and creates true change in people’s lives by connecting their needs to social services.
Because of this exciting success, similar programs Santa Fe and Albany. In 2016, related experimental programs will begin in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Bangor, Maine, Camden, New Jersey, and Fayetteville, North Carolina. Special Agent Donnie Varnell, coordinator for the Fayetteville LEAD program, points to his own experience as a police officer, having to deal with people whom “due to their addictions are constantly being arrested for petty charges. By using one of these LEAD programs, these subjects have the chance to find treatment and resources that can break the cycle of arrest.”
Not Police Alone:
Another important distinctive of the LEAD program is that it connects law enforcement with other important resources seeking to change lives and communities for the better. Judges, social workers, defense lawyers, nonprofit groups, faith communities, as well as anyone concerned about helping rehabilitate and prevent drug abuse and prostitution are all invited to partner with the police in helping transform lives.
Drug use and addiction is a complex problem with many facets to it, which is why it will take a wide variety of different kinds of people and organizations working together to eradicate. Programs like LEAD show a lot of promise in helping to change our model of treatment and prevention to something more likely to make a positive difference.