Police officers in many areas want to refer drug users to treatment instead of arresting them. Overburdened treatment providers are wary of cooperating with some police programs called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD).
Police officers in Charleston, W. Va., have stopped arresting every drug user who shoplifts and steals weed whackers off porches to pay for their drug habit. They’re referring some of them to treatment, leaving more time to pursue major drug arrests. The approach seems to be working. In the last three years, more than 170 low-level drug offenders have signed up for addiction treatment instead of being taken into custody, and more than 70 percent of them have turned their lives around, reports Stateline. In a worsening opioid epidemic, West Virginia’s effort to replicate the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program has run into a daunting obstacle: wariness among overburdened treatment providers. Like the rest of the nation, West Virginia has a severe shortage of behavioral health professionals. With hundreds of people outside of the criminal justice system on waiting lists for treatment, county mental health officials are hesitant to make room for drug users when not enough beds and treatment services are available for existing clients.
Lisa Daugaard of the King County, Wa., Public Defender Association, said many police departments want to start LEAD programs, but are unable to find addiction treatment partners. Launched in Seattle six years ago, LEAD was driven by critics of racial disparities in drug arrests. Civil rights leaders and health advocates argued that the only way to break the cycle of repeated petty crimes and arrests was to provide housing and mental health and addiction services to people who needed it most. Ten other cities and counties in Maine, Maryland, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Washington state and West Virginia have launched similar programs. LEAD will launch next year in Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles, King County, and Waynesville, N.C. At least 49 other locations are considering LEAD or similar diversion programs.