Experts Question Police Addiction Program's '90% Success Rate'

By Zachary Siegel 04/12/16

An optimistic report from the newly launched Operation Hope has many criticizing the organization's self-reporting system.

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Experts Question Police Addiction Program's '90% Success Rate'
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Like other chronic illnesses, substance use disorder has a relapse rate of roughly 40 to 60%. That’s why people are skeptical of one police department’s report, which boasts a 90% success rate. 

Operation Hope, launched six months ago by the Scarborough Police Department in Maine, reported 62 out 68 people they’ve reached for follow-up are still in recovery. That’s a success rate of 90%. 

Similar to the Angel Program started by the police department in Gloucester, Mass., Operation Hope offers addicts a helping hand rather than arrest. According to the program's website, it aims to “treat those suffering from addiction with compassion, care and concern.” People seeking help for addiction are invited to approach police, who will connect them to treatment. The Scarborough Police Department is just one of about 90 police departments across the U.S. that have established their own Police Assisted Addiction Recovery Initiative programs.

The idea behind the program is no doubt a good one. An addicted drug user is better off in rehab than a jail cell. But even so, people are not buying the Scarborough police's self-reported success rate. There are several issues with the report. According to Maine Public Broadcasting (MBPN), 140 people were referred to treatment through Operation Hope. So what happened to the other 72 participants and why were they left out of the report? It’s unclear, but Scarborough Police Chief Robbie Moulton says the program is doing its best to find out.

Other than not being independently peer-reviewed, there is further reason to question the report. Operation Hope refers nearly everyone to abstinence-based residential programs, where methadone and buprenorphine are not used. But programs that don't use medication-assisted treatment (MAT) have shown poor results, such as increased risk of relapse and overdose death. 

“There remains no evidence, no publication, no peer-reviewed journal that supports the use of non-medication treatment as an effective treatment for opiate addiction,” addiction specialist Dr. Mark Publicker, who is highly skeptical of the police department's success rate, told MPBN. Another expert, Dr. Merideth Norris, came to a similar conclusion. “They’re presenting a 92% success rate. The national average of medication assisted treatment, which is the most evidence-based intervention, is approximately 40% for long-term recovery,” she told MBPN. “And that’s if we’re really being inclusive and optimistic.”

Dr. Norris also pointed out methodological flaws with how Scarborough PD determined Operation Hope's success rate. Mainly, the use of self-report. Since police are the ones surveying participants, asking if they are still in recovery, participants may not respond truthfully and instead give the desired answer. However, while both specialists were skeptical of the department’s claims, they lauded its progressive approach to treat instead of punish people suffering from a substance use disorder. 

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.