The Gloucester Police Department's novel program to help residents battling opioid addiction was up and running for only a day when it received its first taker early Tuesday morning.
About 3:30 a.m., according to police, a 31-year-old male walked into the Gloucester police station on Main Street and requested treatment as part of the so-called "angel" program that pairs addicts with volunteers who will accompany them through treatment and recovery.
"We did an in-take here and then the person was taken to the hospital for an assessment and treatment," police Chief Leonard Campanello said, declining to offer more personal details of the first participant because of federal regulations governing the dispensing of personal health information. "The important piece for all of this is for law enforcement to extend a helping hand, and we've started doing that."
Campanello did say that the first participant did not surrender any drugs or paraphernalia and that his volunteer met him at the hospital to initiate the angel portion of the program.
Leading off for the angels was George Hackford, a 57-year-old Gloucester resident for only the past eight months, since moving here with his wife from Singapore.
Hackford, originally from England, works in partnership development at Ocean Alliance in the old Tarr and Wonson Paint Manufactory on Rocky Neck.
He said he was sleeping at home when his phone range at 3:33 a.m. He then made his way to Addison Gilbert Hospital to meet the first participant and spent approximately 11 hours with him.
"It worked very well indeed for the first one," Hackford said. "It's very difficult for these people at that particular time. It's a very sensitive time for them because they've come in, they've decided they're going to change their lives. So, it's a critical point. So, they just want somebody to sit with them and chat."
Hackford complimented both the Gloucester Police Department for instituting the program and the staff at Addison Gilbert Hospital for the manner in which they adhered to the established protocol.
"The support infrastructure was certainly there at the hospital," he said. "The person involved was certainly given the support they needed at that time, and I can see that there is now going to be ongoing support for that human being, which from my perspective, and I haven't done this before, was a very, very good experience indeed."
Hackford, who also had volunteered as a visitor in the Singapore prison system when he lived there, said he offered his angel services for the opioid program as a means of giving something back to society and because he believes the program is unique and innovative in the way it pathologizes, rather than criminalizes, individuals within the throes of addiction.
"They're people who basically have a disease," he said. "They're not criminals."
The opioid-addiction program is based on the pledge that any addict who walks into the police station and surrenders drugs and paraphernalia and asks for help will not be arrested for drug possession.
Campanello said he also was satisfied with how the first participation was handled by members of his department and others involved in the process.
"It's not a difficult or intricate program," he said. "It's a work in progress."
The Police Department has partnered with several healthcare providers for treatment, including Lahey Health — and its Addison Gilbert Hospital and other treatment facilities — and Worcester-based Spectrum Health Systems.
The program, developed by Campanello, is a local response to the widespread and growing problem of opioid addiction and the skyrocketing numbers of opioid overdoses.
It has drawn significant attention, both regionally and nationally, as the opioid problem has escalated, including concern from the Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett. While praising the intent of the program, Blodgett cautioned Campanello in a letter about potentially overstepping his bounds legally.
"While we applaud the general idea of your proposal, an explicit promise not to charge a person who unlawfully possesses drugs may amount to a charging promise that you lack legal authority to make, and on which a drug offender may not be able to rely," Blodgett wrote in the letter dated May 20.
Campanello said he had no interaction with Blodgett or his office on Tuesday and believes the program is legal as constituted.
"We're satisfied we're within the letter of the law," Campanello said.
The chief also said on Tuesday that several treatment facilities have offered scholarships to help pay for the treatment of participants who do not have medical insurance or whose insurance will not cover the treatment costs.
The only outlay of city money, he said, is for the purchase of nasal Narcan, which is used to assist overdose victims. Those funds, he has said, will come from money seized from drug dealers.