The 376 patients who entered the Gloucester police-led “angel” program during its first year included 88 who had been treated for opioid addiction six or more times before, and 144 who were treated for addiction between one and five times before showing up at the police station seeking help.
Yet the average age of those participants during the program’s first year — from June 2015 to June 2016 — was just over 29 years old.
Those are among the statistics cited in a report carried in the Dec. 22 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine that praised the program for making new strides in reaching those who need treatment for heroin and other types of opioid addiction.
The report — printed as an extended letter to the publication — notes “more research is needed to understand the experience of participants after direct referral by police for an opioid-use disorder.”
But it also suggests the police leadership behind the program — launched in Gloucester in June 2015 by then-Chief Leonard Campanello and backed by the start-up Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, or PAARI — has proven a key to placing those in need in treatment.
“The high direct referral rate of 94 percent exceeds those reported for hospital-based initiatives that are designed to provide immediate access to detoxification and treatment,” the report reads, noting 21 percent of those who sought treatment by other means nationally were not able to access it.
“Our efforts have been legitimized by the New England Journal of Medicine,” said Allie Hunter McDade, who serves as PAARI’s executive director and works out of the agency’s offices in Newton and in the Brown’s Mall building on Main Street. “This gives hope and encouragement to law enforcement professionals across the country who are committed to or are considering an addiction recovery program for their communities.”
The anti-addiction program steers those battling addiction into treatment without fear of facing arrest if they come to a police station to seek help and turn over any remaining drugs.
“The provocativeness of this — the idea of people coming in and us saying we will not arrest you — was never meant to be the focus of this,” Campanello said Thursday in a telephone interview.
Campanello, fired as chief on Oct. 3 by Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken for misleading investigators into a probe tied to text messages with a woman and the mishandling of his city-issued cellphone, also stepped down from his role with PAARI at the time. He later retired as chief, effective Jan. 3.
“The messaging behind the program always was is that there is a better, more compassionate and more righteous way of dealing with (opioid addiction), and that it will work,” Campanello said. “Now, instead of just one person at the forefront or other people leading it, touting what it can do, we have statistics showing that it is working.
“The secret sauce of this, so to speak, was just to open your doors, remove the stigma, and let law enforcement lend its voice to removing the stigma,” he added.
The correspondence to the Journal, titled “A Police-Led Addiction Treatment Referral Program for Massachusetts,” was co-authored by Dr. Davida Schiff of Boston Medical Center, Mari-Lynn Drainoni, associate professor of health law, policy and management at Boston University, and Dr. David Rosenbloom, professor at Boston University School of Public Health.
Rosenbloom has been gathering demographic and treatment information for PAARI since the nonprofit agency’s start, and is a member of PAARI’s board of directors, headed by Gloucester resident John Rosenthal.
“The astounding fact is that people came to the police station for help, and they got it,” Rosenbloom said in a prepared statement separate from the Journal report. “In our follow-up calls, participants told us that the police station was the first place they had ever sought help without being judged and stigmatized.”
“Factors that enabled referrals,” the report reads, “included ... the additional support provided by volunteers; the fact that officers searched for placements 24 hours a day ... the provision of transportation, and the state-mandated insurance in Massachusetts, which covers drug detoxification.”
The report amounts to a review of the first-year of the program in Gloucester. The program is now being modeled by more than 200 other law enforcement agencies across the country and includes, through contracts with PAARI, more than 300 treatment centers who sign on to accept patients but also offer “scholarships” for treating those who do not have viable insurance coverage.
The authors drew data from 376 addicts who entered the program through the Gloucester Police Department, and found that — among other statistics — 144 had been in and out of treatment programs between one and five times, and 88 had entered treatment six times before turning to police.
Of those who were in prior treatment, 165 said they participated in self-help group programs such as Narcotics Anonymous, while 58 had been through methadone treatment, 15 were in long-term outpatient programs, and 20 weretreated through residential programs.
Of those who came to the police station, 78 percent indicated their “current” drug use at the time was through injecting heroin, and 83 percent said they used drugs within the previous 24 hours.
Steve Lesnikoski, who flew from California to seek treatment through the Gloucester program and was its first patient, said the role and commitment of law enforcement to extend immediate help was what caught his eye.
“The way it usually would go is that, if you had insurance, the insurance company would give you the 800 number to call for a treatment center, and they would take you — if they could,” he said in a phone interview.
Lesnikoski, drug-free for more than a year, is now working as a crisis counselor in Lynn.
“The thing so different about the Gloucester program was that they would take you right there on the spot, and that’s what was so unique,” he said. “That’s a big part of it.
“There’s a still a lot of work to be done,” said Lesnikoski, who hadn’t seen the Journal of Medicine piece, “but it sounds like this is more evidence that it’s working. It’s a program that is a big first step.”
Told of the report’s statistics, Lesnikoski said he wasn’t surprised — including the finding that 88 program participants were in treatment six or more times before.
“That’s the reality,” he said. “The way I look at it, those are 88 people who got another chance — like me.”
Angel program numbers
A sampling of statistics from the first year of the Gloucester angel program on opioid abuse, as cited through a report in the Dec. 22 New England Journal of Medicine:
Average age: 29.4 years
From Gloucester/Essex County: 137
Other Mass. cities/towns: 153
Out of state: 21
Average age started using drugs: 15.3
Average age started opioids: 20.4
CURRENT DRUG USE
Heroin, injected: 228
Heroin, snorted: 58
Prescription opioids: 73
1-5 times: 144
6 times or more: 88