Keely Gilmour had just robbed the last pay station of the night and was getting ready to pull away from a New Mexico state park when she saw the headlights in her mirror. All she could do was wait and watch as the park ranger pulled up behind her. He questioned her and was about to let her go when he spotted Gilmour’s BB gun. The ranger held her at gunpoint and called for backup. The pretty young woman with a longtime IV meth habit faced a lot of tough choices and a lot of hard federal time.
“We used to go to Elephant Butte, all over the state, and rob pay stations,” she says. “We’d get $300 out of each one. I’ve done everything from check fraud to breaking into cars. Every charge I’ve had in my life has been drug-related.”
The Albuquerque native started dabbling in meth as a teen in 1994, moved in with a meth cook in ‘07 and started shooting it in ‘09. Now her habit, freedom and kids’ futures were all on the line. She knew that she was about to enter an endless criminal justice cycle that never wants to let you go, like an obese aunt squeezing you painfully at Thanksgiving.
Last year, Santa Fe was the second city in the country, after Seattle, to roll out a program called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) to keep people like Gilmour on the straight and narrow, even as they battle debilitating addictions, by taking a healthcare approach to drugs rather than the standard lock-’em-up approach.
Now that the United States has five percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners, officials, experts and politicians—conservative and liberal—are re-thinking the kinds of policies that typically keep drug users like Gilmour in a constant, unforgiving grind involving lots of legal hoops and big punishment for the slightest misstep. It’s a touchy subject, since so many have seen friends and family members and entire families destroyed via intoxicants. Hard drug use is firmly identified with crime, prison, and violence. But reformers are wondering what’s worse: drugs or our drug policies. Do the policies ensure that involvement with hard drugs will eventually lead to the sort of shitty outcome Americans have been taught to expect?
Former Massachusetts Federal Judge Nancy Gertner, speaking recently about being forced by mandatory minimums and drug policies to make decisions she now regrets, compared our current system to historical events like the post-World War I Treaty of Versailles and Reconstruction after the Civil War—agreements that ensured horrible outcomes for the losers of horrific wars by penalizing them to the Stone Age rather than helping them to stabilize.
Now, Santa Fe has made a bold move to change how it treats habitual hard drug offenders. LEAD seeks to divert hard-drug recidivists from the criminal justice system and to social services to help with basic necessities and set them on a path leading them back to something like normal. Santa Fe’s program currently has 34 “clients” whose average age is 25. A third city, Albany, NY, just announced it will implement it as well.
“Drug policy is not something that should be political. This is about saving lives,” says Angela Pacheco, the Santa Fe district attorney who helped spearhead LEAD with help from the Drug Policy Alliance.
DPA first approached her with the idea of a pre-booking program for drug offenders. Pacheco’s interest was piqued, and she ordered a cost-benefit analysis that found potential long-term savings to taxpayers of about 53 percent using drug diversion rather than traditional policing to handle drug recidivists. Constantly jailing and adjudicating an offender was projected to cost $129,000 over 10 years, which doesn’t include various other social costs. Taxpayers would foot a bill of just $69,000 over 10 years for an individual in the LEAD program.
Pacheco has become a leading reform figure, a prosecutor who wants to see fewer people in prison. In July, she traveled to Washington twice to speak at the White House and then before a House subcommittee on her harm reduction efforts. “What we’ve learned is you can put people in jail over and over and they reoffend. We truly believe [LEAD] will help solve the problem,” says Andrea Dobyns, a public relations rep for Santa Fe PD. “Sometimes you have to approach a problem differently.”
Getting law enforcers to think “differently” is the biggest challenge that Dobyns and others point to in their reform efforts: “Traditional officers think, ‘You’ve committed a crime, you get arrested.’” There’s been resistance to LEAD, she says, but as more and more cops are trained in it, the more positively it has been viewed department-wide. “We had to really sell the program,” says Dobyns. “Once they attended training, they really understood the value of the program, and they jumped onboard.”
For a lot of law enforcement and other government officials, arresting low-level drug offenders is just about “a paycheck,” says Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based Drug Policy Alliance. As the push for drug policy and sentencing reforms builds bipartisan consensus, Piper says, drug warriors continue to dig their heels in and insist that the war against illegal intoxicants must go on—and that it’s for Americans’ own good. “Their heart is not really in it,” he says. “They would arrest people for wearing a brown belt with black shoes if there was a federal grant in it for them.”
None of the Albuquerque-area law enforcement reps reached for comment on LEAD had heard of it. That may be indicative of the interest traditional law enforcers have in maintaining the status quo. One was even extremely hostile. APD public information officer Tanner Tixier very angrily demanded to know: “If [LEAD] is so progressive, why isn’t it everywhere?” Tixier’s counterpart at the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s office, Aaron Williamson, was not so hostile to the idea, but also hadn’t heard of LEAD; he later told me Bernalillo County Sheriff Manual Gonzales was familiar with LEAD but had not yet looked that deeply into it. But plenty of reformers can be found in the ranks of the nation’s prosecutors, judges and even cops.
“The war on drugs is over. And we lost,” Leonard Campanello, the police chief of Gloucester, MA, said in a recent interview. “There is no way we can arrest our way out of this… We’ve been fighting it for 50 years, and the only thing that has happened is heroin has become cheaper and more people are dying.” After several local heroin deaths, Campanello spearheaded a LEAD-style program called the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative.
“Our drug policies are by far more harmful to society than drug use or abuse could ever be,” says Neill Franklin, a former Baltimore cop who heads up the D.C.-based Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). “The number of deaths that result from the policies are at a level we can’t accurately calculate.”
Long before he retired from 33 years of policing to lead LEAP, Franklin was a true believer in traditional enforcement of drug policies. So he was instinctually resistant when Baltimore started a needle exchange program in the 1980s to combat a surge in HIV infections. The program was a success, he says, “and the number of new [HIV] cases dramatically reduced. I myself was shocked to see the success of that program. Many people resist such programs because of emotion, their personal feelings of morality. But you should not legislate morality. Our policies should be about saving lives.”
Franklin later was assigned to Baltimore’s needle exchange board, perhaps because he had lost a cousin to a heroin overdose. “That’s when I personally got my first little bit of insight into doing something differently other than the law enforcement response,” he says. Ten years later, in 2000, a tragic event shattered any remaining confidence Franklin may have had in our drug policies. His close friend was on an FBI undercover cocaine buy when something went wrong. The seller decided to rip him off, and put a bullet in his head at point blank. “That was the straw on my camel’s back,” says Franklin. “It caused me to stop and think about the violence from these policies, the gangs, crews, street corner dealers, the whole shebang. Shortly thereafter, I discovered LEAP’s website.”
Franklin questions how the government decides which drugs to make illegal, since the numbers show that legal drugs like alcohol, tobacco and painkillers kill far more Americans than illegal drugs. “We don’t dare travel down that road to prohibit alcohol and tobacco, so why do we treat someone so different who’s addicted to heroin than addicted to alcohol?” he wonders. “Why is that? A lot of it is about the media, the conversations we’ve had over the past four or five decades about hard drugs. It’s about the brainwashing we’ve done. We’ve been very successful creating a message that people who use these drugs are bad, immoral people. We’ve been bombarded by this negative messaging.
“If you can relieve yourself from that messaging, and instead look at it as a substance that alters your state of being, like alcohol, then you begin to realize we shouldn’t be prohibiting, we should be regulating, providing treatment.”
Reformers say prohibition for anything never works. They cite the huge teen pregnancy numbers in areas that offer abstinence-only sex education, and, of course, alcohol Prohibition in the 1920s. Perhaps the best recent example of how legislating morality can backfire disastrously comes out of Indiana. State officials noticed an explosion in HIV and hepatitis cases related to IV drug use in Scott County. They saw a rise from three cases between 2009 and 2013 to 142 cases in 2015. Republican Gov. Mike Pence begrudgingly signed a bill allowing needle exchange in an attempt to staunch infections in the largely rural community.
“Conservative, rural states adopting syringe programs is a game-changer,” DPA’s Bill Piper said in a statement at the time. “There’s an opportunity here for the U.S. to join the rest of the developed world in making sterile syringes widely available to stamp out deadly diseases.”
Keely Gilmour says you can’t get addicts to stop using unless they want to stop. “With meth, it doesn’t matter what you do to users, they’re not going to get clean unless they want to,” she says. “You have to keep hitting bottom, hitting bottom till you realize it’s not you, it’s the drug.”
Albuquerque’s “drug court” was created as an attempt to keep drug defendants out of prison, but Gilmour says its prohibitionist approach undermines its intent. She says that although she’s seen people decide to get clean because of how strict it is, the number is “a very small percentage. I think people don’t pass drug court because it’s so hard. It’s three phases, and most don’t get past the first one. They make it so hard for you to do anything.” Gilmour was able to avoid prison after her bust last year. She kicked meth, and now works in her family’s shop. She’s fortunate to have a social safety net. Others caught up in the drug/crime cycle aren’t so lucky.
Maintaining a drug habit isn’t cheap, so users “have to steal and rob and break into houses to support their habit,” she says. “With supporting your habit comes the crime. And if you get caught with the littlest amount of drugs, you go to jail and you’re a felon and you can’t get a job or place to live. When you get out, all you know are drug addicts, so all you can do is revert back to crime. It’s like a revolving door.”
~ LEAD focuses primarily on repeat reoffenders who use opiates and commit property crimes to support their habit. The region has long had a reputation for heroin abuse, and in 2011, Santa Fe had the second highest rate of home burglaries among cities with under 100,000 residents. Two veteran Santa Fe detectives, speaking to the Albuquerque Journal, estimated that 99 percent of burglaries they had investigated were related to heroin.
~ Arrestees may be assessed on the street before they are put through the booking process. To be considered for LEAD, suspects must be over 18, have no violent criminal background, and be in possession of less than 3 grams of heroin. They also may not be involved in drug trafficking, promoting prostitution or exploiting minors.
~ Suspects who refuse the program go through the usual booking process. Those who accept it are assigned a case worker who arranges immediate detox. The case worker develops a longer-range plan that includes help with housing, employment, and medical and psychiatric needs.
~ The end goal of LEAD is to rehabilitate opiate users while saving taxpayers money and putting a sizeable dent in property crime.
-Find Tom O'Connell online at his website.