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Miami police say they’ll offer opioid addicts rehab instead of arresting them

Published by Daniel Brooks Moore on

In the fight against an opioid epidemic ravaging the nation, Miami officials hope to use law enforcement to steer people into medical care instead of jail.

Miami police plan to offer people with opioid addictions a chance to go to rehab instead of arresting them under a new program announced Monday. Using a pair of federal grants totaling about $1.6 million, the police department will be working with Jackson Behavorial Health Hospital, the South Florida Behavioral Health Network, the University of Miami Health System and other agencies to develop a pre-arrest diversion program where people found with small amounts of opioids can enter a one-year outpatient treatment program, which would include anti-addiction medication, social services, mental health counseling and general medical care. 

Police and hospital officials expect to spend the next six months hiring personnel, setting up the program, and training officers, in order to start offering treatment by May 2019. Dr. Patricia Ares-Romero, chief medical officer of the Behavioral Health Hospital, said the program could treat around 100 people over the three-year life of the grant. Much of the treatment will be outpatient, but the program will have some capacity for inpatient care.

The ideal length of treatment is 18-24 months, Ares-Romero said, but the city chose a year to fit the parameters of the grants while offering a substantial amount of care to the patients. She said the diversion program will be a positive step toward tackling addiction in a way that will help people return to a stable lifestyle. She described the range of services that will come with the anti-addiction medication as crucial to “treating the whole patient.” 

“We’re hoping to keep them in treatment for 12 months,” she said. 

Police Chief Jorge Colina said the department collaborated with Jackson to apply for the two Department of Justice grants, which are meant to last three years. He told reporters the issue represents an intersection of the law enforcement and medical fields, where jail is not the right answer for people who need help breaking the cycle of addiction. 

“Addiction may be a law enforcement problem, but there is no law enforcement solution for addiction,” he said. “There may, however, be a medical solution.”

Colina and State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said the program will also free up resources for police and prosecutors to go after dealers instead of users.

“I have no sympathy for the dealers,” Colina said.

More than 140 Americans die every day from overdoses of opioids such as heroin and fentanyl, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Officials in President Donald Trump’s administration have said the nationwide opioid epidemic is a priority for federal law enforcement agencies. In February, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions visited Florida and pledged to invest federal law enforcement’s time and money in going after traffickers on the Dark Web, a part of the Internet that requires certain software to access and is used by drug dealers.

On a local level, Miami police hope the new approach will slow the opioid trade by using medical intervention to help people beat their addictions. Eldys Diaz, the executive officer to the police chief and one of the people tasked with overseeing the program, told the Miami Herald that if the plan is successful, it has the potential to disrupt the local opioid market.

“What if we could shrink the overall market of the opioid trade?” he said. 

Medical professionals applauded the announcement at Miami City Hall on Monday. Dr. Hansel Tookes, head of a University of Miami-led needle exchange, said the program is a necessary progressive approach to helping people who are suffering and cannot easily get treatment. Not only will it give addicts access to treatment at the point that they encounter law enforcement, but it will have a broader public health impact across the community.

“It’s going to prevent the spread of HIV,” he said. “It’s going to prevent hepatitis C transmissions.”

Tookes has firsthand experience with guiding people into medical care and stopping the spread of disease. He heads the IDEA Exchange, an outreach program that provides people with clean needles in exchange for used ones in order to stymie disease transmission. The Exchange also helps place people into treatment.

The announcement of the new program coincidentally comes at a time when Miami’s politicians have turned their focus to a group of homeless people living under the Dolphin Expressway in Overtown, many of whom are addicted to heroin.

The needle exchange and the city’s homeless outreach program have successfully persuaded several people to go into treatment in recent weeks, but City Hall officials have demanded that the area be cleaned up soon. The city has posted notices warning people to collect their belongings because on Friday, city workers will sweep through the area, clean the sidewalks and pick up garbage, furniture and drug paraphernalia.

Homeless people suffering from addiction present a larger challenge for police and public health officials. The grants do not cover the cost of housing for homeless addicts. Ares-Romero said she hopes to work with partner organizations such as the Homeless Trust to make sure there are beds available for those undergoing treatment.

She also said Jackson and the city are already looking for funding to extend the program beyond the three years of the grant, emphasizing the magnitude of the opioid problem.

“It has to be be sustained over time,” she said. “The problem is not going away.”



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