How a police force tackled the meth crisis by pairing addicts with 'angels'

A Winnipeg man struggling with meth addiction says some U.S. police departments have the solution to the meth crisis — they put addicts into treatment instead of jail.

Treatment rather than jail time for addicts under successful police program spreading across U.S.

Arlington, Mass., police Chief Fred Ryan says Manitoba's meth crisis could be helped with programs created through the Police Assisted Addiction And Recovery Initiative. (Supplied)

A Winnipeg man struggling with meth addiction says some U.S. police departments have the solution to the meth crisis — they put addicts into treatment instead of jail.

"I think that'd be a fantastic program," said Mike. CBC has agreed not to use his name to protect his safety. "Rather than treating them like they were criminals, right?"

Mike, 32, was reacting to the Gloucester, Mass., police department's "Angel" program.

The concept is simple; addicts who show up at the Gloucester Police Department and ask for help are taken to a hospital where they're paired with a volunteer "angel" — such as a police officer or social worker — and put into treatment within 24 hours. Even if the addict is high or carrying drugs, they're safe from the law.

"You will not be arrested. You will not be charged with a crime. You will not be jailed," reads the Gloucester Police Department website.

Mike, who has been arrested several times in recent years for carrying or using meth, said the threat of jail time is a useless deterrent from the highly addictive drug.

"A piece of paper and a judge's order — I mean, just telling someone that they can't do drugs isn't going to stop a drug addict from using a drug," he said.

Mike, a recovering meth addict in Winnipeg, would welcome a police initiative that helps addicts break their addictions. (Cliff Simpson/CBC)

The Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative — a non-profit collective of law enforcement agencies — masterminded the Gloucester Angel program in 2015.

The results were almost immediate. One year later, according to the New England Journal of Medicine, 376 people had sought help through it. Of those, 94 per cent received that help.

Now, more than 400 police departments across the U.S. have implemented some version of the program.

Ensure survival first: Police chief

Frederick Ryan is the police chief of the Arlington, Mass., police department. He says their version of the program could be a good solution to Manitoba's meth crisis.

In their case, they don't wait for the addicts to reach out to them. They appoint social workers to reach out to not only the addicts, but also their families.

Let's ensure the survival of you and your loved one.- Arlington, Mass., police Chief Fred Ryan

"Prong 1 is the survival plan. We tell the families, 'Let's plan for the next overdose, because it's going to happen,'" Ryan said.

"So let's ensure the survival of you and your loved one.'"

They also create a long-term treatment plan for the addict — even if they don't ask for that help for months.

"Sooner or later, when they hit rock bottom and call for help, you need to have a plan already in place to activate," Ryan said. 

That's why once the addict reaches out for help, they're in a treatment program within a day. And it's why, Ryan says, it's a solution that would also work for meth addicts in Manitoba.

"The concept's the same for meth," Ryan said. "Come up with a survival plan, before the addict asks for the help. Don't dehumanize [meth] addicts." 

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Shane, a painter in Winnipeg, agrees.

The recovering meth addict (CBC has agreed not to use his last name to protect his family), would like the Angel-style programming to cross the border into Canada.

"We're human, not criminals, so I like how they treat it," he said.

In 2015, the Winnipeg Police Service briefly explored the program, but noted it would take too much co-ordination between too many agencies to make it logistically viable.

Earlier this year, however, Fred Ryan presented the program to law enforcement officials in Ottawa, representing agencies from across the country.

"They were interested to see how it worked," he said.

Notoriously addictive

Regardless of the treatment options currently used in Manitoba, those affected by the meth scene agree: something new needs to be done, because meth is notoriously addictive.

It's easy to find, cheap to buy and users say the high is a good one.

"Think of the best you ever felt in your life and multiply that about 100 times," said Vince O'Donohue of the Main Street Project, a Winnipeg detox centre. "That's how you feel when you're using meth."

But the lows are hard and addicts fall with a thud.

"Think of the worst you've ever felt in your life and multiply that 100 times. We're talking suicidal depression," O'Donohue said.

That, combined with the extended periods of sleeplessness (another effect of meth) and periods of psychosis lead an addict's tormented mind and body screaming for one thing — more meth.

Relapse rates are staggering. According to Main Street Project, just 17 per cent of meth addicts succeed in getting off the drug and staying off the drug.

In October 2017, two addicts in recovery started a meth support group for addicts. By last month, the group was nowhere to be found. One of the founders, the CBC was told, had relapsed.

Emergency rooms are also ill-prepared to take in addicts, they say.

"I told a doctor I was high on meth. He just walked away," Shane recalls. 

Shaming forbidden in Arlington program

Then there's the stigma attached to meth — in the hierarchy of the drug world, meth addicts rank among the lowest.

"Guilt comes into it, shame comes into it," O'Donohue said. "The depression hits every user."

Arlington police Chief Fred Ryan says shaming the addict is forbidden in their programs.

"Waving your index finger at them is not going to work," Ryan said.

Phil Goss is a former meth addict and now a peer counsellor with Main Street Project. He's not optimistic that any treatment program can cut through the stranglehold meth has on its addicts.

"There's only one way to get rid of the problem, and that's to get rid of the meth," he said.

It's an unlikely solution given that, save for some meth mills in small Manitoba cities like Steinbach, most of the drug makes its way here from Mexico, via drug mules through to Chicago, then Minneapolis, and across Western Canada's porous borders.

That means people like Mike, still in recovery at a Winnipeg treatment centre, will have to navigate sobriety without succumbing to the streets, where meth remains rampant.

He hopes his relapses are behind him, but would welcome support from a program like Gloucester's Angel program.

"The angels … guardian angels?" he said. "Pretty apt name."