As a stand-alone drug-fighting policy, “lock ’em up” has failed. Since 1999, the number of fatal illegal-drug overdoses has nearly tripled in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
To help turn those numbers around, the Chicago Police Department has taken a wise step in the right direction with a unique drug diversion program that gives heroin addicts a choice when they are arrested: jail — or treatment. It’s a program the city should scale up, and other local police agencies should hurry to implement as well.
As Frank Main reported in Monday’s Sun-Times, police officers posing as drug dealers nabbed low-level addicts on Friday who had come to the West Side to buy heroin. Given a choice, 41 of the addicts chose treatment over prison. One said, “It’s better than being locked up, I guess.”
Heroin is an enormous problem. Nearly 13,000 people died from heroin overdoses in 2015, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. More people die from heroin than gun homicides. This month, in providing millions of dollars more for treatment, Maryland’s governor declared a state of emergency over abuse of heroin and other opioid drugs.
Yet the National Institutes of Health has reported only about 20 percent of the nation’s heroin addicts have sought or received treatment. Addicts know their drug is illegal, which keeps them in hiding and discourages them from seeking help.
That’s where the police can step in, even as they continue to pursue major drug dealers with criminal charges. By giving addicts a choice, they can steer people to treatment who might never go there on their own.
As the Sun-Times reported, the heroin scourge strikes across all social boundaries. Those who were caught in Friday’s reverse sting were white, black, Asian, Hispanic, young, old, male and female. Recent headlines show the geographic reach of the drug: An Aurora man sentenced for possessing $1.3 million worth of heroin; four men charged with running a South Side heroin market; alleged dealers arrested in Lake County, St. Charles, Wheaton, Crystal Lake, Waukegan, Naperville, McHenry and the West Side.
All cities have addicts in their midst, and more help is unlikely to come soon from Washington. In laying out their new health care plan, congressional Republicans are calling for doing away with an anti-addiction tool by eliminating a requirement that Medicaid cover addiction services in states with expanded Medicaid.
Chicago is wise not to wait for the federal government to do more. Heroin has a devastating impact on the city, and we need to pursue every avenue to address it.
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