Mayor: Boston could stop charging addicts who seek help

A new program in Gloucester calls for police not to charge addicts if they ask for help.
A new program in Gloucester calls for police not to charge addicts if they ask for help. –AP

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said the city could follow the lead of nearby Gloucester by offering treatment instead of criminal charges for opiate users who ask police for help.

In an interview with Boston.com, Walsh said he is watching a program in Gloucester, a city 40 miles from Boston with one-twentieth its population. Starting this month, Gloucester is offering treatment to the addicts instead of charging them—even if they are carrying drugs.

“I commend Gloucester for what they’re doing,’’ Walsh said. “I think it’s a great idea, a great pilot program, I’m looking forward to seeing how it works and taking that model and possibly using it here in Boston.’’

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Walsh said the chance of starting such a program in Boston is “probably pretty good. … I’m not sure when, but it’s probably fairly good odds.’’

What would happen to an addict in Boston now who asks police for help? It varies, the mayor said.

“It really depends on who you get at the table,’’ Walsh said. “Some officers will help you get numbers to get into treatment.’’

Adopting the Gloucester approach could represent a big shift in drug policy. In many U.S. cities, the war on drugs means allocating law enforcement resources to put relatively low-level offenders behind bars.

In Gloucester, the new program has raised questions from prosecutors concerned about how it will be enacted. The county district attorney has said the policy could face legal challenges. In response, Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello said in an interview with WBUR that the approach is comparable to gun buyback programs, which Boston has employed.

Boston Police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Walsh said the city’s Office of Recovery Services, which he created when he became mayor, offers several programs to help addicts. A recovering alcoholic who has helped others stop drinking, he made the office one of his 2013 campaign promises.

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“Any ideas people have for combatting drug addiction or dealing with drug addiction is a good, positive step,’’ Walsh said.

A report released last month by Walsh’s office and the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation offered a number of recommendations for addressing substance abuse in Boston.

Among them is the implementation of a multi-agency “pre-arraignment diversion pilot for adult drug offenders.’’ A pre-arraignment program in Essex County—which includes Gloucester—allows some people charged with non-violent drug offenses to go to treatment centers rather than face prosecution.

The new Gloucester program, though, takes things a step further by not even charging addicts who seek help.

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