Addicts will soon be able to surrender their drugs to Montpelier police without fear of being arrested, charged or interrogated. Instead, officers will give them free rides to treatment.
Project Safe Catch, the brainchild of Montpelier Police Chief Tony Facos, is arguably Vermont law enforcement's most radical experiment in the war on drug abuse.
"Basically, we're the taxi service," Facos said. "It's one-stop shopping. We will link you to treatment. You're not going to be out there alone, unsupported. We want to be part of the solution."
When the program begins in a few weeks, addicts in Montpelier will be encouraged to drop by the police station, which will have a drug-disposal box in the lobby, or to flag down a police cruiser for help.
Facos expects only a handful of addicts to come forward in the first few months. But backers say the program could prove useful in containing a recent surge in opiate addiction-related crimes.
Drug overdoses killed 108 Vermonters in 2015, up from 81 in 2012. Montpelier's last fatal overdose was in 2014, according to Facos. The chief said other law enforcement agencies in Washington County might follow the capital city's lead if the program proves successful. Burlington has already inquired about it, he said.
Amnesty is only extended to addicts who turn themselves in; others caught with drugs will still be charged with possession. Facos said police have no plans to let up on their aggressive pursuit of dealers.
"We're not saying, 'Get out of jail free,'" Facos said.
Vermonters are free to seek treatment anywhere in the state, but transportation — especially for addicts who require daily appointments — is a hurdle that keeps most confined to their home regions for care. In most counties, demand for treatment exceeds supply.
Washington County is an exception. At times in recent months, the waiting list for outpatient opiate-addiction treatment at CVSAS has dwindled nearly to zero, according to the Vermont Department of Health. Last week, it spiked to 65 people, but state officials predicted that the increase was temporary.
Chittenden County, by contrast, routinely has 200 or more people waiting for a spot in the area's designated medication-assisted treatment centers, which can leave addicts in limbo for months.
How has Washington County avoided long wait lists? CVSAS is a large facility, serving approximately 400 patients. It also seems to have better coordination among the local hospital, primary care poviders, and mental health and substance abuse counselors, according to Department of Health Deputy Commissioner Barbara Cimaglio.
"They seem to be able to stay on top of the wait list pretty well right now," Cimaglio said. "They have been able to do a great job of getting everyone around the table to talk about how they can improve a more timely access to care. They have a pretty well-functioning team."
The inspiration for Project Safe Catch came from coastal Gloucester, Mass., where the police chief became exasperated with his department's inability to curb a heroin epidemic.
Police Chief Leonard Campanello said that his breaking point came last March, when the coastal fishing town of 30,000 recorded its fourth heroin overdose of the year. One night, Campanello told the Washington Post, he took to his Facebook page and posted an extemporaneous battle cry.
"If you are a user of opiates or heroin, let us help you," Campanello, a former narcotics officer, wrote. "We know you do not want this addiction. We have resources here in the city that can and will make a difference in your life. Do not become a statistic."
The post created a buzz, and from that the Angel Program was born. In the first two months, the Gloucester Police Department brought 100 addicts to treatment.
Word of Campanello's brainstorm spread with stunning speed, and his department launched a nonprofit, the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, to promote and answer questions about the concept. More than 50 police agencies from California to Maine have adopted programs modeled on the Angel Program.
A few months ago, Montpelier City Manager William Fraser was perusing a local-governance newsletter when he came upon a short article about Gloucester's efforts. He forwarded it to Facos.
"This looks interesting," Fraser wrote. "What do you think?"
Hired in 2007, Facos had been searching for ways to change his department's approach to drug use in the community of 7,800 people. He said every single robbery and burglary his officers have solved in the past year — a dozen or so — was related to drug addiction.
The capital city is best known for hosting bureaucrats in its tidy downtown and does not have crime problems as severe as those in Rutland or Burlington. But the impact of opiates has been far-reaching. In the past year, Montpelier police arrested a suspected drug dealer operating across the street from the local elementary school. In a separate incident, they found 11 bags of heroin on a woman inside a car filled with children.
Within weeks of getting Fraser's note, the chief had lined up support from local treatment providers, Washington County State's Attorney Scott Williams, U.S. Attorney Eric Miller and others. Around 60 people attended a forum to discuss the initiative at Montpelier High School last week. Many in attendance said they were concerned about the increasingly availability of opiates, according to the Barre-Montpelier Times-Argus, but the newspaper quoted no one voicing opposition to Facos' plan.
Facos said the drug amnesty part of Project Safe Catch gets the biggest reaction from people. But equally important is the way the program changes how participants move through the judicial system.
Washington County has already established a drug court that emphasizes treatment over incarceration for addicts charged with crimes. The county is launching a more vigorous program that drops those charges altogether if addicts agree to seek — and successfully complete — treatment. But they still have to show up in court.
Facos' program goes one step further: Addicts aren't charged in the first place, so they don't go to court.
Although it means surrendering his prosecutorial authority in some cases, Williams, the state's attorney, said he supports the initiative. "If somebody commits a crime, we want them punished — that's how we were all raised," Williams said. "But that model is not accomplishing what I think the goal needs to be, which is to put myself out of a job. We're finally reaching a point where people are saying, 'Yeah, maybe there's a better mousetrap.' It's a moral progression."
The role of police is changing in America's War on Drugs — once loyal foot soldiers, law enforcement officers now also operate as medics. Like their counterparts in Burlington and the Vermont State Police, capital city cops are equipped with Narcan, a drug that can save the life of someone who has overdosed on opiates.
Landing a place where police can take addicts overnight, when most traditional treatment centers are closed, is the last detail of Project Safe Catch. Facos is working on an agreement to use the Lighthouse, a Berlin facility where alcoholics sober up.
Mary Moulton is executive director of Washington County Mental Health Services, which runs the Lighthouse. While still negotiating protocols and preparing staff to handle opiate addicts, she said her organization is "on the same page" as Facos.
For Moulton, the initiative suggests that public attitudes are catching up with the current reality — and not for the first time.
Cops commonly used to arrest people who were drunk in public and throw them in jail. In 1978, the state legislature passed the Alcohol Services Act. It decriminalized public intoxication and mandated that law enforcement take public drunks to treatment instead of jail. The Lighthouse is part of Vermont's Public Inebriate program.
Four decades later, history is poised to repeat itself.
Police didn't like the idea back then, but they love the Public Inebriate program today, said Moulton. "Now we're seeing the same evolution."