Drug Immunity Programs Find Few Takers

By Paul Gaita 10/21/16

Some addiction experts believe that solely offering immunity is not enough to end the cycle of arrest, imprisonment and drug use.

Drug Immunity Programs Find Few Takers

A review by the Associated Press has found that cities with heroin immunity programs, which allow users to turn in drugs to police without fear of arrest, have experienced relatively little response.

The review cites a number of programs, like the Police-Assisted Addiction Recovery Initiative (PAARI) and the Angel Program in Gloucester, Massachusetts, which seeks to connect individuals in need with recovery and treatment programs. Of the 500 substance users placed into treatment by the Angel program, less than 20% have turned in any drugs to police.

Similar instances were cited with programs throughout the country; in Scarborough, Maine, only 12 out of more than 200 substance users turned in even small quantities of drugs, while in Dixon, Illinois, two out of 100 substance users were willing to take police up on exchanging drugs for immunity from arrest.

Supporters of immunity programs cite lower rates of drug-related crimes and fewer overdose deaths in areas where they have been implemented, but outside analysts challenge these claims, noting that factors other than the programs may have also impacted those numbers.

In Cincinnati, county leaders and law enforcement alike are hopeful that their program, launched on Sept. 7, will yield some promise. But as of Oct. 11, no drugs have been turned in to police.

“We weren’t expecting a lot of drugs,” said Julie Wilson, a spokesperson for Hamilton County. “It was something out of the box to try whatever we can to deal with this problem.”

But police view the program from a more skeptical perspective. “You’re asking the addicts and the sellers to give up their drugs. And that’s tough,” said Commander John Burke, who leads a drug task force in Brown County, Ohio. “They get it and they shoot it up. That’s what it’s all about.”

Others question loopholes in the program literature. Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones said that it’s unclear if dealers who are caught with drugs during a routine traffic stop could avoid arrest by claiming they were en route to turning it in. “This will be challenged in court, believe me. And it will be something else we have to fight,” he said. "It’s not the answer."

But for those substance users who have gotten recovery after participating in the program, there’s no grey area in regard to its efficiency. Michael Haislop, who is sober after participating in an immunity program in Maine this year, said the access to treatment was key for his recovery.

“Who knows what would have happened if I hadn’t found them?” he said. "I do know the program was a driving force to getting me to where I am now."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites. 

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