BELFAST, Maine — A Massachusetts police chief who is making national headlines — and getting results — for his unconventional approach to the opioid epidemic told an enthusiastic crowd of about 100 people in Belfast on Saturday morning how what has been working in his city could work in Maine, too.
Chief Leonard Campanello of Gloucester, Massachusetts, said at the second annual “Break the Stigma” walk held by WeCARE, or Waldo Encourages Community Assisted Recovery Efforts, that the epidemic in his city reached a crisis point in March when four people died of drug overdoses.
“As a police chief and an Italian, it pissed me off,” he said. “Any needless death that could have been avoided, as in addiction, hits close to home.”
But that is when Campanello and others began to take a sharply different tack in terms of how the city approached drug addiction, and drug addicts, and created a three-pronged plan that they thought might help. First, he said the police department would petition state and local lawmakers for the use of funds forfeited by convicted drug dealers. Then, the department wanted to find a way to make the lifesaving drug nasal Narcan available free to anyone who needed it. But the final, and most controversial, move was to offer amnesty to any person who comes to the police department for help with their drug addiction.
“What’s gained the most attention is the program,” Campanello said. “We were getting questions. ‘What happens if people come in with 5 kilos of heroin in a wheelbarrow?’ I said, ‘What do I care? We’re going to take the kilos off the street and send the person to the hospital.’”
When the amnesty program, dubbed the “Angel Program” by folks in Gloucester, launched on June 1, police were anxious. A Facebook post about it had been seen by millions of people, in every state and in many countries.
“We knew we were in for a world of hurt on June 1,” Campanello told the Belfast crowd.
But the police officials have found that by relentlessly contacting treatment centers, insurance companies and government officials, they have managed to find help for the 187 drug addicts who have so far come to the police station in Gloucester.
“The war on drugs, forget it,” the plain-spoken police chief said. “It’s over. It’s time to start a new war. Fight the drugs, not the addicted person. We can’t be lemmings and say we’re fighting it by arresting everyone.”
He said that it is the community’s responsibility to treat addiction as a disease and not as a crime.
“Imagine if the only way you could get help for cancer was by getting arrested,” he said. “For the mindset that there’s still a way to incarcerate ourselves out of this problem, I have no use for them. We’ve been doing that for 50 years. A lot of people have suffered.”
After Campanello spoke, Belfast Police Chief Mike McFadden said that he is inspired by what has been going on in Gloucester and is eager to try a similar approach in Belfast.
“This is the wheel we’ve all been looking for. It’s a common-sense approach,” he said. “A no-excuses approach to solving this problem. I want to do something about the problem every single day. This strategy addresses the problems from the street to the clinic. It passes the 2 a.m. test. If a system works at 2 o’clock in the morning, it works.”