CINCINNATI — Reeling from a surge in heroin overdoses, authorities in the Cincinnati area made an offer: Hand in potentially deadly drugs and you won’t be charged. But the blanket immunity granted by a judge there over a month ago hasn’t brought in any heroin so far.
Results from similar efforts elsewhere have also yielded few drugs, according to a review by The Associated Press. Still, that hasn’t dissuaded supporters who, along with officials nationwide, feel like their backs are against the wall as they try to fight the opiate crisis.
“Turn it in, get it off the streets; get it out of your homes, out of your families,” Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco, the Hamilton County coroner, pleaded last month.
She and other county leaders had hoped people would willingly come forward with deadly drugs when a judge granted their request for blanket immunity on Sept. 7. But so far, the prosecutor’s office has yet to hear about any drugs being turned in to any local law enforcement agency in the county.
“We weren’t expecting a lot of drugs,” said Julie Wilson, a spokeswoman. “It was something out of the box to try whatever we can to deal with this problem.”
Recovering addicts who have gone through similar efforts in other parts of the country say they aren’t surprised Cincinnati’s effort hasn’t borne fruit.
“The tangible drug is just the surface, and with no available access to treatment you’re essentially yelling to a drowning person ‘Just keep swimming!’ without actually throwing a life preserver,” said Steve Lesnikoski, 31, the first to go through a pioneering heroin treatment program in Gloucester, Mass.
Launched in June 2015, the ANGEL program lets addicts turn in their heroin to police without fear of arrest. But officials say fewer than 20 percent of the over 500 addicts placed into treatment have taken them up on that offer.
Two communities that were among the earliest to adopt Gloucester’s approach have seen similarly low numbers of drug drop-offs.
In Scarborough, Maine, roughly a dozen of the over 200 addicts placed into treatment have turned in small quantities of drugs and paraphernalia. In Dixon, Ill., two of the more than 100 addicts so far placed into treatment have willingly handed over drugs.
The efforts are more focused on getting people into treatment than rounding up drugs, said John Rosenthal, director of a Massachusetts organization supporting Gloucester’s and some 160 similar efforts nationwide.
“Just to be 100 percent clear, we don’t view our programs as offering ‘immunity’ for people in possession of illegal drugs,” he said. “We are offering access to treatment without arrest, shame or judgment, and if participants happen to bring in drugs, police will gladly receive and destroy them.”
Dixon Police Chief Dan Langloss agreed: “It’s an important part of the program, but it’s not the focus. It sends a message to people struggling that we’re not here to arrest you. We’re here to help you.”
Simply offering immunity for turning in drugs isn’t enough; programs need to offer ways of ending the cycle of drug abuse, arrest and incarceration, addiction experts say.
But the ultimate impact of programs like Gloucester’s remains to be seen.
Advocates cite lower rates of drug-related crimes like shoplifting and burglary and fewer fatal overdoses, but independent analysts caution there are likely other factors contributing to those declines. And no published data yet show how addicts fare after treatment.
Officials in Gloucester, Scarborough and Dixon say informal surveys suggest 10 to 35 percent of participants have relapsed at least once.
Seattle’s 5-year-old LEAD program — which connects low-level drug offenders and prostitutes with support including housing and mental health counseling instead of jail — hasn’t been compiling drug use statistics but will going forward, said Lisa Daugaard, who helps manage the program. It is being replicated in Santa Fe, N.M.; Albany, N,Y.; Baltimore; Portland, Ore.; and other cities.
Authorities around Ohio, meanwhile, are watching Cincinnati’s immunity approach with hope and skepticism.
“You’re asking the addicts and the sellers to give up their drugs. And that’s tough,” said Cmdr. John Burke, who leads a drug task force in nearby Brown County. “They get it and they shoot it up. That’s what it’s all about.”
Sheriff Richard Jones, from neighboring Butler County, questioned whether dealers caught with drugs during a traffic stop could claim they were on their way to turn it in.
The Hamilton County prosecutor’s office responded that people would have to walk into the station to be granted immunity; leaders have said a relative would likely be the one to turn in drugs.
Jones remains unconvinced.
“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.”
Michael Haislop, 27, who went through Scarborough’s addiction program in December, countered that doing nothing isn’t an option.
Haislop quickly fell back into old drug habits after being released from prison this year; then he learned about the community’s treatment offer. He has been clean ever since, he said, working and attending community college in Portland.
“Who knows what would have happened if I hadn’t found them?” he said. “But I do know the program was a driving force to getting me to where I am now.”