With Richard Nixon’s declaration that drug abuse was “America’s public enemy No. 1” in 1971, the aim of the federal government and police departments across the country for the following decades was to lock up drug offenders. The idea was simply that punishment would make people realize they shouldn’t use drugs and that they would stop doing so to avoid jail time. But, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that this approach isn’t working. There has to be another way to deal with drug offenders, and one approach – a “harm reduction” inspired program called LEAD — in Seattle is gaining attention.
Arrests, Drug Courts or Harm Reduction?
The problems with the system of arresting drug users are becoming increasingly obvious. The U.S. currently locks up a higher percentage of black men than South Africa did at the height of apartheid, and prison wardens are resorting to filling gyms and television rooms with beds in order to find space to keep so many people locked up. Along with the formidable cost, the drug war doesn’t seem to be stopping the abuse of illicit substances, and that’s why alternatives are starting to get some attention.
Drug courts are one possible solution. These courts are set up to get addicts into treatment, with regular drug tests and reviews of their progress to ensure the program is working for them. The courts are enjoying some success, according to studies, and there are at least a few in every state in the country. But those most in need of help often drop out or are never eligible for them in the first place.
In the west precinct of Seattle, another approach is being tested. It comes from the school of harm reduction, with the philosophy that it’s better to reduce the risks for drug users without forcing them to abstain from substances if they’re not ready to. Needle exchange programs – which allow users to change potentially HIV-infected needles for clean ones – are available in most U.S. states, in Canada, Australia and many European cities. Even safe injecting rooms – where users can take heroin with a nurse on hand to help them if they overdose – have been attempted. In Washington, D.C., you can’t be arrested if you call 911 to report an overdose. The Law Enforcement Assisted Division (LEAD) program in Seattle is a little different, but follows the same underlying philosophy.
The LEAD Program
The LEAD program covers a 150-block area including downtown Seattle, spanning streets awash with heroin and crack dealers. The program offers addicts a place to stay, clean clothes, money for college tuition, books for school and much more. There are also counselors who help them search for jobs, get food stamps and find health insurance. The catch? They have to see a counselor at least twice within the first month. The idea is to help rather than punish.
Jeremy Bradford’s Story
Ex-Marine Jeremy Bradford is among the people who have benefitted from the LEAD program. In the decade following his 29th birthday he lost 30 pounds due to his addiction, let his personal hygiene fall by the wayside and slept anywhere he could. He lost his job at a department store and soon got one of his drug-using friends pregnant. A year after his daughter was born, there was a fire in the hotel room where she stayed with her mother and the state took custody of his child. Soon after, the baby was adopted by Bradford’s mother and stepfather, and although he visited her occasionally, she’d call his stepfather “dad.” Bradford said it hurt every time he heard it.
Bradford had been locked up in county jail more than 20 times and had tried rehab before he became involved in the program. He thought he was going to be arrested when police found him smoking crack under a freeway, but instead he was offered a chance to participate in LEAD. He did it because he wanted to be a better father. He was taken to the station and introduced to a social worker. Bradford told the social worker he wanted an apartment and a job, but that he didn’t want to stop smoking crack. His social worker found him a spot in a homeless shelter and helped him get his driver’s license back. After a few meetings, Bradford had a change of heart – he wanted to end his addiction after all. He’s been living in a home for recovering addicts since the start of 2014, and in August celebrated his eighth month sober: his longest drug-free period for over a decade. He still calls his social worker or sees him every day. “I don’t have to,” he says, “but I’ve made it a habit.”
Successes, Failures and the Future of LEAD
Of course, not everybody who enrolls in the program has such a positive turnaround. But the success stories are numerous. One police officer tells the story of two people he’d stopped seeing on the streets, and after a few months one approached him and showed him a $100 bill in his wallet, proudly stating, “I haven’t bought rock,” and showing the officer a photo of his family.
Although a full review of the program’s efficacy won’t be complete until 2015, initial data shows that of 179 people recruited between 2011 and mid-2013, 150 were homeless. By the beginning of 2014, at least 120 of them were in a home or shelter, and about half of the enrollees had attended addiction treatment.
Polls show that Americans are becoming increasingly receptive to the idea of giving drug users help instead of jail time, and police departments around the country (including San Francisco, Denver, Houston and Atlanta) have sent representatives to Seattle to learn more about LEAD. Albany, N.Y., is planning to launch such a program, and Santa Fe, N.M., has started something similar for people arrested for heroin and prescription drugs. It might not change the landscape of the drug war overnight (and it won’t work for everyone), but it seems like we’re finally moving in the right direction.