December 1, 2015

Lawmakers hear about alternative to incarceration for opiate addicts

Supporters of a pilot program in Santa Fe that takes a different approach to dealing with those addicted to opiates, including heroin, than incarceration spoke to legislators on Tuesday.

RoundhouseThe supporters are looking for $200,000 in funding for the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, program which is modeled after a program in Seattle that has shown success in dealing with those addicted to opioids. A previous $200,000 funding request was vetoed by Gov. Susana Martinez.

The Courts, Corrections & Justice Interim Committee hearing took place on Tuesday.

Emily Kaltenbach, the state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, explained that the program “redirects people who have probable cause for arrest for low-level drug offenses” to a more treatment-based program. The program includes support for housing, food, mental health counseling as well as support for addiction.

Kaltenbach was joined by, among others, 1st Judicial District Attorney Angela “Spence” Pacheco, Deputy Chief Public Defender Ben Baur and Santa Fe Police Department Detective Casey Salazar.

Salazar outlined who would be eligible for the LEAD program. He said that no one with a violent crime or aggravated felony would be eligible. Police also look at the amount of opiates the person has when arrested, to make sure it is not for distribution, and that the person is not exploiting minors or is themselves a minor.

“This is a community system program,” Baur said. “The seed of this was brought from Seattle, but as it was planted in Santa Fe, it’s becoming an organic thing for us.”

Pacheco said that in her long history in public service, she learned that the criminalizing of addiction has not worked.

“From my perspective, I have failed in my career, because I can’t stop the addiction, I can’t stop people from dying and our jails are full,” Pacheco said. “So my message to you today is that I would hope that all of can start to look at this problem with addiction and try to re-frame it in such a manner as maybe there are other ways than just putting them in jail.”

The legislators who spoke seemed largely supportive. Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Española, said he wished for the pilot program to be expanded to more areas of northern New Mexico, noting that the area is among the worst in the nation for heroin overdoses.

Sen. Peter Wirth, a Democrat from Santa Fe, said it was a good sign who was involved in the program.

“I think any time we have a district attorney and a public defender and law enforcement all together, working towards making the system better, we need to applaud,” he said.

He also asked if anyone knew why the funding, requested by Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, was vetoed. No one was quite sure why, though Pacheco said phone calls from an attorney with the governor led her to believe it could be that the governor’s office believed it was duplication of in-house diversion programs.

“I think it’s important to keep bringing this back to us and keep pushing and when it comes time for the appropriation process, I’m sure this will come through Senate Judiciary and we’ll have the discussion there,” Wirth, who is a member of the committee, said.

Rep. Rick Little, R-Chaparral, asked why drug testing was not part of the program; Michael DeBernardi, the Director of Behavioral Health Services at The Life Link in Santa Fe explained that drug testing is used as part of some clinical programs but is not used punitively. Someone testing positive for opioids will not be kicked out of the program.

Kaltenbach explained the reasoning earlier in the hearing, saying that they were trying to address the root cause of addiction.

“We understand that recovery is a long process and that relapse will happen,” she said.

Kaltenbach told legislators that the early returns from Seattle, which has a large program and has been in effect for four years, are promising. Those in the program were much less likely to be arrested and the cost was less than similar addicts who were not in the program, including costs of incarceration.

She said that it is too early to draw conclusions from Santa Fe’s program, which is too new and has just 39 enrollees.