Why drug enforcement is not a war, but a rescue operation

Drug courts and pre-arrest diversions are an opportunity for a police officer to change an addict’s life for the better


You’ve seen the stories of whales dying after beaching themselves. There are even cases of beached whales who have been assisted back out to sea by rescuers only to die after beaching themselves once again.

The deliberate willful beaching by whales provides a perfect comparison to people with an illicit drug addiction. The efforts of the whale-rescuers are not unlike police officers making drug arrests.

The terminology of "The War on Drugs" must be abandoned to match the current reality; the Grim Reaper has set aside his sickle for a hypodermic needle. For law enforcement officers this is not a war, but a rescue operation. Every drug arrest is a “drug-life rescue attempt.”

This Wednesday June 7, 2017 photo shows hypodermic needles that were recovered from the Merrimack River in 2016, at the Clean River Facility facility in Methuen, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
This Wednesday June 7, 2017 photo shows hypodermic needles that were recovered from the Merrimack River in 2016, at the Clean River Facility facility in Methuen, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Arrest as a Drug-life Rescue Attempt

Because of many programs, like drug court referrals to treatment and pre-arrest diversions, currently in place in many jurisdictions, a drug arrest is actually an intervention that has the potential to become a life-changing event for the addict. The arrest or rescue attempt may serve to:

  1. Sound the alarm to the user and their family that a problem exists.
  2. Lead to an assessment that may enlighten the user to the realization that they are in need of treatment.
  3. Remove the user temporarily from the drug life.
  4. Give the user an opportunity to alter the path they are on.
  5. Make treatment available to the user.
  6. Identify and rescue their imperiled children.

Post-arrest diversions to addiction treatment

Deputy District Attorney Jessica Skemp, a 21-year career prosecutor in La Crosse County, Wisconsin, observed that there is good that can come out of an arrest. Skemp says an arrest can be "horrific, but it can also shock them into action."

She added that when that arrest is made by a "caring officer, (the arrest) can have great impact and change lives."

The special La Crosse "drug court" offers many options for the user, besides jail. The arrest is the first step toward assisting the illicit drug user on the path toward drug and alcohol detox, assessment, monitoring, ongoing testing and treatment. These post-arrest diversions are options many users never would have considered if not for their arrest.

Pre-arrest diversions

The Gloucester (Mass.) Police Department ANGEL program was called a "pre-arrest diversion," when it was developed by Chief Leonard Campanello in 2015.  

"Gloucester used to be called the fishing village with a heroin problem and now it’s called the fishing village with a heroin solution, because of the ANGEL Program," John Rosenthal, Co-Founder/Chair of Police Assist Addiction and Recovery Initiative (PAARI), said.

Current Gloucester Police Chief John McCarthy explains, "ANGEL is a tool to rescue addicts from their drug-life before there is a necessity to arrest."

The term "ANGEL" comes from the name the department gave to the team of volunteers, who respond to the police department to sit with the addict, while a trained Gloucester police officer facilitates the placement of these users in treatment.

McCarthy says that since its inception the police department has placed over 500 addicts into treatment and these efforts have brought successes.

Gloucester PD has established professional relationships with treatment centers all over the country. All a drug user, who wants help, need do is walk into the police department and ask for it. If they can’t walk they can just call.

"What the program has done has changed the conversation in the police world," McCarthy said.

Rosenthal says this approach is making a difference. "We are experiencing a public health epidemic, which now kills more Americans every year than car crashes," Rosenthal said.  

PAARI is helping other police agencies adopt their own ANGEL pre-arrest diversion programs. The approach has been adopted by 256 police agencies in 38 states. Three hundred treatment centers across the country are available for agencies to place addicts in, who ask for treatment.

"We still have a zero tolerance enforcement approach for illegal drugs." McCarthy said. He emphatically added, "We still arrest drug dealers!"

Drug dealers, arrest them all!

Arrest and incarceration of drug dealers are the most effective tools for police officers to rescue their communities from these insidious profiteers. Treatment certainly can be offered to dealers while they are serving lengthy punitive prison sentences.

Drug dealers spread misery, addiction and death. Death comes from not only the products they sell, but also from the violent gun battles dealers wage against their clients, their competition, police and bystanders caught in the cross-fire.

Let the rescues continue

The making of a drug-life rescue attempt is not only a noble endeavor, but also a necessary one.

If the drug dealer goes unchecked he will continue to sell his poison to the hapless, the hopeless and the helpless. If the drug user goes unchecked they will continue down the destructive path of addiction, which too often ends in the same inevitable conclusion as that whale swimming toward the beach.

Street officers possess a powerful rescue tool – the ability to initiate the ultimate intervention by caring enough to say (when probable cause to arrest exists), "You sir/ma’am are under arrest."

After the suspect is handcuffed and searched, consider laying a hand on their shoulder, while sincerely adding, "I want you to know that this is more than just another arrest to me. This is a drug-life rescue attempt."

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