NORTH CAROLINA (WECT) - The "War on Drugs" has lasted more than 40 years and has yet to be won. Now, Wilmington is listed as one of the top areas in the country for opioid abuse and heroin deaths are up 400 percent in North Carolina.
Some cities are trying to reinvent the way they combat circumstances tied to homelessness like mental health issues, prostitution and crime.
A team of law enforcement from the New Hanover and Brunswick counties sheriff's offices along with Leland, Boiling Springs, Fayetteville and Waynesville police departments traveled to Seattle to see whether a new approach could work in their own jurisdictions.
In 2011, Seattle police officers, city officials and community groups created a a pilot program called LEAD: Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion. The idea was in response to lawsuits against the Seattle Police Department for racial disparities in arrests. The PD agreed to try a different tactic for handling low level drug dealers and sex workers.
Private money was used to fund a 4-year pilot program (now in full implementation) at almost $1 million per year. Today, the city of Seattle has committed public money to keep it going, as has King County.
A neighborhood called Belltown was ground zero for implementing LEAD. For the past 30 years it has been a haven for open-air drug deals and use. Residents didn't feel safe and businesses struggled to deal with criminal activity surrounding their storefronts.
While most of the PD was highly skeptical, a small team of proactive street officers were chosen to quietly launch LEAD through a series of "red light/green light" days.
On "green light" days, law enforcement had the option of re-directing some individuals arrested in Belltown into LEAD instead of arresting them. It was up to the officers discretion to decide who would best benefit from the program - a policy that is both praised and criticized for asking officers to adopt a social worker role on the street.
Again these were only individuals caught doing low level drug crimes and/or prostitution. Anyone possessing more than 3 grams of drugs (marijuana not included in Seattle), who had prior convictions for violent crimes, or pimping was disqualified. Seattle has since moved that number up to 7 grams.
On "red light" days, it was criminal justice as usual with arrests, bookings and subsequent jail time.
The first sign that LEAD was making an impact came when two Seattle officers were patrolling Belltown and were stopped by a woman who asked whether it was a "green light" or a "red light" day. Those terms had not been make public, so obviously, the word was getting out about LEAD.
When the officers told her it was a "green light" day she asked if they would give her time to run for her drugs and paraphernalia. She wanted to turn herself in and get a shot at qualifying for LEAD.
On the first day of our visit to Seattle our group of officers and deputies rode along with Seattle PD to get a layout of the city and observe some of the street-level issues they deal with daily.
That's where we met Andrew, one of 340 LEAD participants. Andrew, a known homeless drug user, saw the patrol car coming and smiled when the Seattle officers hopped out.
For several years that team only knew Andrew when he was in handcuffs after shoplifting to support his habit, but his experience in LEAD helped to change his behaviors.
"When you open your arms to a heroin addict, they don't get arms opened up very often, and when they do they come in and appreciate the help," he said to the officers.
Besides their use of drugs and chronic homelessness, LEAD participants are largely characterized by being frequent fliers at the jail and court house. In New Hanover County it costs about $80 a day to house an inmate. The cost over time becomes extraordinary for those cycling in and out for years.
Which begs the question: Is it working?
"We can't stop people from using drugs inside prisons, what gives us the idea that we can stop them using outside?" asked Kris Nyrop, LEAD National Support Director.
Seattle's LEAD focuses heavily on their homeless population, while North Carolina's program intends to address the underlining issues associated with drug addiction. LEAD can be tailored to target any public issue, but centralizes on one simple question: "What do you need right now to stop doing this?"
If the officer asks that question and the person agrees to participate, law enforcement redirects them from an arrest to a LEAD case worker. Case workers can be called at any time of day and receive specialized training on dealing with LEAD participants.
It's the case workers job to first fulfill any immediate needs such as a safe place to sleep or a hot meal. Then the participant has a 30 day intake period to set up their case worker meetings and start addressing long term needs like proper identification, housing, drug treatment and even job training.
Participants are given dates, times and a schedule to follow. If they do not show up for their appointments they are disqualified from LEAD. If they commit any violet crimes or threaten their case worker they are immediately removed from the program.
According to LEAD case workers, the overwhelming majority of those offered LEAD will stick to their schedules.
"After about a year-and-a-half, [law enforcement] stopped doing undercover buy busts in the neighborhood because they couldn't find people to arrest anymore," said Nyrop of the program's trial success.
The most obvious criticism of LEAD is whether or not sending law breakers to social programs versus punishment is simply letting criminals off the hook. Skeptics call it enabling but LEAD participants call it a life line.
"Once you get clean you don't want to go do that stuff," Andrew said. "I want to put my feet up and watch TV. I wish I had LEAD a lot sooner."
Lead architects say participants are almost 60 percent less likely to be re-arrested once on LEAD, freeing up officers to go after violent criminals.
It's statistics like those that have motivated other cities like Sante Fe, Albany and now Fayetteville to initiate LEAD in their own communities.
In August, Fayetteville PD plans to start their own pilot with ten of their low-level drug offenders.
"I used to be one of those officers that dealt with the same addicts over and over again," said Captain Lars Paul from Fayetteville PD. "The same prostitutes, the same heroin addicts, the same crack addicts. I think what we have to do is get people to understand the nature of addiction and that LEAD is targeting the users not the dealers."
Seattle allows low-level drug dealers into LEAD, an idea completely unpopular with the group of North Carolina officers and deputies visiting Seattle. It's true that many dealers are also users, which is why Seattle has given admission to both. North Carolina has come down hard on traffickers and dealers bringing the heroin into our communities, and it is unlikely that our LEAD programs will allow their participation.
"Drug traffickers we're still planning on prosecuting aggressively, but we've got to do something about these end users that are basically dying in our streets and we're not really doing anything about it," said Billy West, Cumberland County's DA.
While law enforcement only has one switch to flip, everyone in attendance from North Carolina wondered if our cities had the funding to support it.
The governor has allotted funding in the budget to address addiction issues and the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition is optimistic that a portion will be allotted to establishing three LEAD programs (the first being in Fayetteville).
Even if that funding becomes available, LEAD will inevitably start highlighting program deficiencies in areas like drug treatment, housing and mental healthcare. While Seattle has an abundance of social services for LEAD participants, the Wilmington area has limited opportunities, particularly for the uninsured and low-income populations.
"LEAD will fail unless you have adequate resources to refer people to," warned Nyrop. "That's my cautionary tale for any jurisdiction that wants to try LEAD."
It's anticipated that participants will relapse and Seattle's LEAD case workers often do not make sobriety a goal, instead, focusing on stabilizing the person's living situation.
"The joke we tell is, most people can't stay on their diet for seven days, so I don't think it's realistic that anybody in the world thinks someone is going to get 'clean' in seven days from an opioid addiction," said Donnie Varnell of the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, the organization who organized the Seattle visit.
Varnell is retired from the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation and now works for the Harm Reduction Coalition. In his career he has put hundreds of drug offenders in jail and argues that if that system was effective, it would have showed results a long time ago.
"We've made a difference but it has not stopped it and has not fixed the addiction rate and overdose death rates," said Varnell. "We have got to be willing to do something different to try to help our citizens - our sons and daughters."
Fayetteville anticipates their program to be fully operation some time in October.
There is no set schedule for bringing LEAD to the Cape Fear area however, Brunswick County Sheriff's Office, New Hanover County Sheriff's Office, Leland Police Department and Boiling Springs PD are seriously considering being the first to implement it - should the initiation funding from the state become available.