Action Project

Madison police target demand side of heroin epidemic in upcoming program

As opiate abuse rates skyrocket, Madison Police Department is straying from traditional methods of slowing overdoses in the city through a new initiative that will target user demand.

Image By: Katie Scheidt

In addressing the county’s swelling heroin epidemic, Madison police are looking to economics.

Despite training and deploying a narcotics task force specifically designed to curb the number of drugs available in the city, Madison Police Department saw a 77 percent increase in overdose rates in 2016 from the previous year.

One MPD officer has an idea behind why—local law enforcement has focused on just one side of the issue.

“Our narcotics task force targets people supplying drugs into the city,” MPD Capt. Cory Nelson said. “Now, we are looking to the demand portion of it.”

Nelson is leading efforts in a new MPD program set to start this June, which will offer treatment as an alternative to incarceration for low-level drug offenders.

The program—Madison Addiction Recovery Initiative—provides users with counselors, peer support recovery coaches and residential or outpatient care, depending on the individual’s needs.

“It looks at addiction more as a disease than a crime,” Nelson said.

Nelson said he saw ahigh relapse rates as a signal that something new needed to be done.

“Our overdose rates are still skyrocketing,” he said. “However well we’ve done in the past, it doesn’t appear to be working. A number of those we’re arresting are repeat offenders. They get out of jail and they overdose or go to jail again, so we need to look at some new ideas.”

One major problem Nelson saw with the old system is that users are arrested and end up having to enter withdrawal in a jail cell. He said users should be going through withdrawal in an inpatient treatment setting, because jails weren’t set up to handle the same things as medical facilities.

Users being arrested and charged for crimes they commit while trying to support their addiction is another important issue the program will address, according to Nelson.

MARI will divert heroin possession charges in cases that aren’t felony level cases and don’t involve any violence. This includes, he said, incidents of users prostituting themselves or committing theft to support an opioid addiction.

Arrested users will require enrollment in the program for six months. If they comply with the full requirements of the program for six months, charges won’t be filed and won’t be on a person’s permanent record. Users who are not encountered by police first can also reach out for help without facing risk of arrest.

Once in the program, Nelson said, users will be offered a counselor who is certified in mental health and substance abuse. They’ll also be offered peer support and recovery coaches who will work with the counselor to help “do the hand-holding of the individual” to make sure that they’re following through with treatment orders.

Patients will also have the option of medication-assisted treatment.

“There are pharmaceuticals out there that block receptors to the brain, so if someone does use an opiate, it has no effect on them,” Nelson said.

The program will be funded through a $700,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice and Nelson estimates it will be able to help up to 150 users at a time.

Nelson said that while the department doesn’t want to turn away people who need treatment, MARI will mainly target heroin users. Other drugs will be handled on a case-by-case basis.

“We’ve looked at different programs all around the country, and taken bits and pieces of them to come up with something that will fit best in Madison,” Nelson said.

UPDATE 11:37 a.m., Feb. 14: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to MPD Capt. Cory Nelson as "Corey" and with "Clement" used on second reference. The Daily Cardinal regrets this error.

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