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Compassion over incarceration

As Southern Oregon grapples with a rising number of overdoses from opioids and illegal drug use in general, Ashland and Medford police are quietly doing what they can to help those struggling with addiction — and that means helping them into treatment, not into a jail cell.

Starting last October, the Ashland Police Department implemented its Gateway Program, a policy that says if you walk into the police department carrying illegal drugs and you ask for help in confronting your addiction, you will not be arrested or charged with possession. The drugs will be confiscated, and police will help connect you with the Addictions Recovery Center, a Medford treatment facility.

Medford police adopted a similar program starting in February.

Officers carry priority assessment vouchers that they give to individuals seeking treatment. The vouchers allow the person to go to the head of the line for assessment at the treatment facility, avoiding what can otherwise be hours of waiting.

So far, Ashland police say 14 people have checked in using the vouchers; Medford police report six check-ins for treatment.

Those may not sound like big numbers, but they are a start. Enrolling in treatment is also no guarantee an individual will succeed in getting off drugs, but again, it’s a start, and those who don’t seek treatment are unlikely to kick the habit on their own.

Getting users into treatment is also more likely to help than putting them in jail cells. Because of the Jackson County Jail’s space problems, those arrested for simple possession don’t stay long enough to benefit from treatment there. Nonviolent offenders are the first to be released for overcrowding, putting them right back on the street.

The Gateway Program is modeled after one in Gloucester, Massachusetts. That city’s Angel Program shifted the focus from arresting drug users to helping them connect with treatment programs. In the first year, a study showed that of 417 cases where a person who visited the Gloucester police station was eligible for treatment, 94.5 percent were offered direct placement and 89.7 percent enrolled in detox or other recovery services.

At a time when fatal overdoses from opioids are on the rise, it makes sense to try new approaches to the problem. If police are seen as helpers rather than adversaries, it could go a long way toward getting more people into treatment.

The combination of compassion and assistance with treatment has the potential to do far more to reduce drug abuse than arrests and incarceration.