WASHINGTON -- After watching President Barack Obama’s speech last week in Charleston, West Virginia, addressing the country’s opioid epidemic, a man living nearby called 911 asking for help in finding a treatment facility. Officers with the Kanawha County Sheriff’s Office were dispatched to the residence, where they found a stash of narcotics and the man desperate to get help.
According to a press release from the sheriff's office, the man placed his hands against a wall as the officers arrived. Instead of arresting the man, the cops arranged for an ambulance to take him directly to a rehabilitation center. The officers destroyed the drugs they found in the man's home, which included a stash of 158 pain pills.
Sgt. Brian Humphreys, the sheriff’s office spokesperson, told The Huffington Post the officers did not contact the prosecutor’s office, nor did they debate whether to arrest the man. “They just knew that the right thing to do was dispose of the drugs safely and get him to a treatment center,” he said.
Humphreys added that addicts calling 911 or asking police for assistance in finding drug treatment is not uncommon. His department put out the press release to promote the idea that they are interested in connecting addicts to treatment, not arresting them. “If you genuinely need help, we genuinely want to help,” he explained. “If you want to get clean, we will do what we can to get you the help you need.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that heroin overdose deaths have nearly quadrupled between 2002 and 2013. Law enforcement agencies around the country are looking for any strategies that can dampen the opioid epidemic. Those strategies have begun to include offering diversions before an addict ever sees the inside of a jail cell.
In June, the police chief in Gloucester, Massachusetts, famously offered in a Facebook post that his department would not arrest any addict who sought their help. A nearby department joined Gloucester's effort. Two police departments in Illinois have offered treatment if addicts come forward and turn over their drugs.
During his speech and Q&A in Charleston, Obama talked about the need for treatment over incarceration. "For a long time, I think treatment was seen as a second-class citizen," Obama said. He noted that a bipartisan effort was underway to address the failed tough-on-crime policies of the drug war.
"I am deeply encouraged that on this issue we are seeing bipartisanship," the president said. "That's how we'll solve this problem."