BOSTON (STATE HOUSE) – Special kiosks set up at some police stations collect unwanted and unused prescription medication, and some departments accept unwanted guns and ammunition on dedicated takeback days.
Massachusetts police departments could next become a point for addicts seeking recovery to turn in unwanted heroin and other drugs, without the threat of prosecution, under legislation recently filed by Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante.
“We’re not talking about somebody who comes in with a wheelbarrow full of narcotics, but if you come in good faith, there needs to be — so that we can encourage them to come forward — the provision that says if you’re an addict, you’re coming in good faith, you want treatment and you’re going into treatment, you or the person that’s bringing you can take a possessory amount of heroin and forfeit that without the fear of being charged,” Ferrante said.
The bill states that a person “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” or drug paraphernalia, if the evidence for such a charge was gained as a result of seeking treatment.
Ferrante, a Gloucester Democrat, originally proposed the measure as an amendment to more comprehensive addiction prevention legislation passed by the House in January, but agreed to withdraw the amendment and file a separate bill because “it was almost like it was too big to be in there.”
The bill was referred last week to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary for consideration. A public hearing has not yet been scheduled, though Ferrante said she hopes it moves through the legislative process with “a sense of urgency.”
Ferrante said her bill is inspired by an initiative in Gloucester, where police have started helping addicts get into treatment. She described the legislation as an expansion of the Good Samaritan law, which protects an overdose victim or witnesses from possession charges if they call 911 for medical help.
“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?” Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello said. “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.”
In Gloucester, a person seeking addiction treatment can come to the police department to be connected with a detoxification program. Campanello has said his officers will not charge or arrest the people who do so, and will dispose of drugs or paraphernalia they carry in with them.
Since launching the initiative about eight months ago, the Gloucester police have gotten 400 people into treatment, Campanello said.
“When the chief first came out and said he was going to do this, a lot of people, including me, were a little skeptical,” Ferrante said. “But we wanted to be supportive because he was thinking outside of the box. We all thought, ‘Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t work, but why wouldn’t we try it?’ And then eight months later, to see 400 people come forward who could have potentially ended up in overdose circumstances is unprecedented, and it just really captures all of our attention.”
Campanello said that more than 20 other police departments in Massachusetts have followed with similar programs, as have departments in 17 other states. On Monday, the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative – an organization co-founded by Campanello to support departments working with opioid addicts – announced that the Oxford, N.Y. police department and the Broome County, N.Y. District Attorney’s Office became the latest to sign on and commit to helping addicts access treatment.
The police departments choosing to refer addicts to treatment or dispose of forfeited drugs adopt internal policies laying out requirements and instructing the officers how to proceed. Some other departments have expressed an interest in instituting similar procedures but voiced concerns that controlled substance laws would compel them to charge someone who came in to the station with drugs, said Rep. Paul Donato, a cosponsor of Ferrante’s bill.
“This bill will make it so that it becomes law that cities and towns can do this,” the Medford Democrat said.
Donato said the law would not require departments to refer anyone to treatment but would make sure they had the authority to provide help to people who came in looking for it.
“That’s the whole purpose of the law,’ he said. “We know that some addicts are looking for help, and they’re desperate to have that help.”
Copyright 2016 State House News Service