If a drug abuser wants help, come March 1, they can walk into the Ashland Police Department and ask for it. They can also get rid of their illegal drugs and no charges will be filed.
The Ashland police department is the first in Oregon to begin a drug amnesty program which does not arrest drug users seeking help but instead offers help. “People can come in and turn in their illegal drugs or seek treatment," says Police Chief Tighe O’Meara. "No questions asked.”
The program allows anyone who wants help to ask for it and, instead of being charged or treated as a criminal, they’ll become a patient.
It began in December, unofficially, and so far at least two people have used it. Amnesty will become more official once O’Meara is able to wrap up contracts with assisting agencies like OnTrack Addiction services. The program is based on one started in Gloucester, Mass. Now some 44 other police departments have adopted it.
“We want to get drugs off the streets," says O’Meara. "This is a way to do it.”
He is working with OnTrack so that when a person asks for drug treatment, two counselors can respond and assess how to help that person — whether it’s in-patient treatment or counseling or detox.
“Criminalizing addiction hasn’t worked," says O'Meara. "If your body needs something to live, it’s not fair to make that a crime. We need to treat the disease.”
In 2014, Ashland Fire & Rescue responded to 42 calls of citizens suffering an overdose and nationally some 8,000 people die annually as a result of heroin overdose, which Chief O’Meara describes as the country’s worst drug problem, often starting with a legal prescription.
“I don’t want to see people die from this anymore,” O'Meara says.
In answering critics concerns that the drug amnesty program will lead people to believe Ashland is soft on drugs, O’Meara says, “If you’re stopped in a traffic stop and you have illegal drugs, you’ll be arrested. If you have illegal drugs anywhere but at the police department to turn them in, you’ll be arrested.”
O’Meara says he encountered resistance when the Ashland Police Department first started giving officers Naloxone so they could help people survive an overdose.
“Most of the time our officers are there first," O'Meara says. "We got criticism from some people who thought we should just let people die, but we’re not going to do that. We’re never going to do that.”
As to being the first in Oregon, O’Meara says he’s spoke to other agencies about this, but “They’re watching us to see how it works.”
Kelyn Marshall, nurse educator and project manager for the OnTrack Gateway Program which will work with APD, says the goal is “to get people help sooner. It’s a lot of steps to get people to treatment. This could provide a step or gateway to get people to treatment.”
A grant from Jackson Care Connect, the health agency associated with the state’s Medicaid program, assisted in the process with a grant to OnTrack of $139,520. The Ashland Police Department assured the City Council there would be no cost to the city.
Asked why Ashland is the first community in Oregon to adopt this, Chief O’Meara says, “We’re uniquely placed due to the size of our community and the support for this kind of program. We’re able to lead the way.”
Like the O’Meara, Marshall says it’s important to remove barriers to treatment and get to people before they hurt themselves or others, before they commit a crime. “It reduces the stigma of addiction issues," she says. "It gives police another way to help people and gets help sooner.”
As a former hospital nurse dealing with many side effects of addiction within families and communities, Marshall says a program like this which may bring people the help they need sooner gives her hope. ”With addiction people can recover and that’s inspiring for me,” she says.
The Ashland Police Department and OnTrack are also in discussion with Asante Community Hospital of Ashland about participation in the program.
Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.