Police chiefs call efforts to curb drug crisis unsuccessful
KEENE, N.H. (AP) — It’s no surprise that most New Hampshire police chiefs consider drug misuse a big problem in a state that has one of the nation’s highest rates of overdose deaths. But a new survey shows that some believe law enforcement agencies have been fairly unsuccessful in reducing the problem.
“Status quo is not working,” one chief said in the anonymous survey. “Courts and police (are) not on the same page.”
Angela Barlow, a Keene State College professor, recently surveyed 91 of the state’s 178 police chiefs. More than 80 percent rated drug misuse as either an “extremely serious” or “quite serious” problem.
But half of them said law enforcement agencies have been fairly unsuccessful in reducing the problem, and 20 percent called those efforts “very unsuccessful.” More than half of them said they believe a fundamental overhaul is needed in the way the U.S. deals with the drug problem.
As of last week, there had been 273 drug overdoses in the state so far this year, with 96 cases still being reviewed, according to the New Hampshire medical examiner’s office.
There were 485 drug overdose deaths in 2016, more than double the number of deaths five years earlier, according to the medical examiner’s office.
Barlow, who was presenting her research Wednesday night, spent three weeks in Portugal this summer learning about the country’s efforts to reduce drug misuse. The number of drug overdose deaths in New Hampshire is about 10 times higher than the number of deaths in Portugal, despite the fact that Portugal has 10 times the population, she said.
Portugal still punishes drug dealers, but since 2001 has treated possession or use of any drug as a health issue rather than a crime.
“It frees up the police and the courts to be able to focus on high-level offenders, to be able to focus on traffickers, to be able to focus on violent crime,” she said. “That’s one simple way we can think about it, and the underlying success of Portugal’s program is free access to quality health care.”
Barlow said she was a bit surprised at how eager the chiefs were to admit that things aren’t working.
“But then I was also surprised that given the very high rates of police chiefs who say they wanted change, that they were so resistant to some of the suggestions that have been provided,” she said.
The survey asked participants to rate several proposed solutions as either a step in the right or wrong direction. About 70 percent opposed decriminalizing small amounts of all drugs for personal use.
Sixty-four percent of respondents called requiring low-level, nonviolent drug offenders to enter mandatory, court-supervised treatment programs, a step in the right direction. Chiefs were evenly split on whether to support reduced sentences for low-level non-violent drug offenders.
Half a dozen police chiefs around the state did not respond to requests for interviews, nor did the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police.