Gloucester police chief: Fight the demand for drugs by helping addicts battle addiction

Groton — The chief of the Gloucester, Mass., police department told an audience of about 150 on Thursday night that police lost the war on drugs on the supply side, so now it's going after the demand.

But it's doing so with compassion and without judgment, Chief Leonard Campanello said.

The department began combating the heroin and opiate epidemic in the community with a new program June 1, by telling addicts to bring in their drugs and they would be guided to treatment rather than arrested.

As of July 17, the program had placed 55 people into treatment.

Police still go after suppliers, Campanello said. But he told the audience at Robert E. Fitch High School that the war on the drugs from a supply side "is over, it's done, we lost."

Yet the new approach shows promise, because police bring a new voice to the table when they offer help to addicts who seek it; they become part of improving the health of the community and with it, crimes associated with addiction also decline. 

The timing couldn't be more crucial, he added. On Tuesday, an Uxbridge, Mass., parent told him his son had died of an overdose right before he was about to get help.

"I'm tired of listening to these stories of people who died and I've been doing this for 25 years," Campanello said.

Public officials, health care providers, advocates, a lawyer, those in recovery and people who had lost loved ones stood up and commented after he spoke.

One woman pleaded with people to empty their medicine cabinets of unused opiates like Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet and others. Four out of five heroin addicts start with prescription drugs, Campanello said.

"It's not the guy under the bridge with a needle in his arm," he said of the picture of an addict. "It's the next door neighbor's kid."

Groton Town Councilors attended the meeting, as did the Stonington Board of Selectmen, who stood up together and pledged to serve "the most vulnerable in our community."

Romeo Blackmar, program coordinator for PRIDE — which stands for Partnership to Reduce the Influence of Drugs for Everyone — traveled from Putnam to hear the presentation. On June 1, a 33-year-old man died of a drug overdose in the town.

The premise of going after the demand, "that's exactly what I believe," Blackmar said. "That to me, is a revelation that's unheard of."

Thomas M. Greaney, an alcohol and addictions counselor in New London, said he wants to remove the stigma of addiction.

"Society does not want to see or hear about the disease of addiction for fear that it will darken their door," he said. A program that changes that mindset, expands awareness and reaches out to people is phenomenal, he said. 

"I could not think of a better scenario than one which welcomes people," he said.

The presentation Thursday was set up jointly by the group Shine A Light on Heroin, formed to break the silence about heroin addiction, and Community Speaks Out, organized by Town Councilor Joe de la Cruz and his wife, Tammy. Their son is battling addiction.

d.straszheim@theday.com

Twitter: @DStraszheim

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