25 Investigates: Dozens of drug users get help instead of handcuffs

25 Investigates: Dozens of drug suspects get help instead of handcuffs

QUINCY, Mass. — Nearly one year into a pilot program designed to put more drug users into recovery instead of the criminal justice system, law enforcement officers in Norfolk County tell 25 Investigates they've contacted dozens of people who qualify for the help.

In February, Governor Charlie Baker's office and the Executive Office of Public Safety awarded $99,000 to Norfolk County for the Buyer Diversion Treatment Alternative program, giving four police departments the ability to offer treatment services to low-level drug buyers instead of arresting them.

Six Months on the Street

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"We tried to incarcerate the problem away. That didn't work. We tried to embarrass and shame the problem away. That didn't work. So, we've got to come up with some other way to do it," said Officer Ryan Donnelly with the Quincy Police Department.

25 Investigates followed Donnelly over the course of six months after the state announced the pilot program.

In April, Donnelly interrupted a suspected drug deal outside of a local pharmacy in Quincy.

While the suspected buyer quickly admitted to paying $80 for a bottle of pills, they surprisingly turned out to not be opioids or any other narcotics -- rather an antihistamine called Promethazine.

Donnelly still cited the seller and gave a warning to the buyer, who said he was already in an addiction recovery program and uses Promethazine to help with the side effects of methadone treatment.

"You see me and need anything on the street? Shout at me, 'hey, Ry, listen I need something. I need some help with something,'" Donnelly told the buyer.

While Donnelly did not give out a diversion card during that encounter, Quincy Police tell 25 Investigates they had handed out 28 cards by mid-September.

The Deal

Low-level drug buyers who receive the cards have 72 hours to avoid criminal charges by seeking treatment at Bay State Community Services in Quincy.

"There's no piano hanging by a shoestring over someone's head by any means... What we want to do is make sure these people realize there are no strings attached," said Quincy Police Lt. Patrick Glynn who runs the department's drug control unit.

Glynn says about 30 percent of those contacted by his officers so far have actually gone to Bay State Community Services for an initial screening.

About 20 percent came back for a follow up visit.

When asked how to assess whether the pilot program is working, Bay State's president and CEO Daurice Cox insists it comes down to saving one life.

"I don't mean to be dramatic about it, but people are dying every day of overdoses and if we can intervene with one person, we're not only helping that person, we're helping their family and we're helping the community," said Cox.

The non-profit run by Cox said it could not share specific outcomes related to the diversion program to protect the privacy of the participants, but Cox says drug users who receive the cards and ask for help have the ability to access a range of services from detox to outpatient counselling.

"Our job is to have a clinician available. They walk in and we say 'what do you need? What can we do to help you?'" said Cox.

Still Making Arrests

Glynn says his officers haven't stopped making drug arrests. He points to a bust in June that netted $10,000 worth of heroin and fentanyl along with cash and a gun.

Officers arrested the suspected dealer, but now some of his customers may get a second chance.

"What I would say to people who are somewhat opposed to it is, what would you like us to do if it was your family member?" said Glynn. "Everyone needs a second chance. Everyone needs help. They just don't know where to get it sometimes."

Norfolk County District Attorney Michael Morrissey says many drug users are at greatest risk right after their dealer is arrested because they begin looking for a new source of illegal drugs.

"A couple of years ago, we had someone -- they were really out (of jail) for like three hours and they had overdosed," said Morrissey. "Trying to get people into treatment has always been a problem and most of us would rather get someone into treatment than lock them up."

Uncertain Future

Police say much of the $99,000 from the state pays for an extra clinician at Bay State Community Services. Law enforcement and treatment experts say they'll meet in October to determine whether they can continue the pilot program in Norfolk County.

Police and prosecutors in Worcester County told 25 Investigates the Buyer Diversion Treatment Alternative program has been a success there, but said they could not provide statistics until the program is complete. That program was supposed to end on October 1st, but police say they've submitted an application to continue it through the end of the year.