Seattle’s revolutionary approach to treating drug abuse has changed Wade Johnson’s life. A self-confessed addict, the 35-year-old Johnson has lived in the city since 1988 — minus time spent in prison for robbery and drug charges — and joined the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program three years ago after talking with a case manager on the streets of Belltown, a neighborhood in the shadow of the Space Needle that is a popular haunt for junkies.
“They threw me a life preserver,” Johnson told VICE News. “They helped me build bridges back with my family, I’m very employable now. I have a lot to live for. They put me on a platform.”
After Johnson expressed interest, the LEAD case manager, Chris Gates, consulted with local cops who knew Johnson and reached a consensus that he was a good candidate for the program. LEAD supplied Johnson, who was then homeless, with housing and a support network that he could use to change his life.
“When you to go to treatment in Washington [state], 80 percent of the people who leave don’t have housing,” Johnson said. “Me having a place to go to once I was out of treatment, it helped immensely. I had somewhere to go.”
At its core, the four-year-old LEAD program is a street-based harm reduction program for alcoholics and drug addicts in downtown Seattle. It is similar to the way Portugal handles drug addiction, but the program is the first of its kind in the US. Utilizing cooperation between law enforcement, prosecutors, and harm reduction experts, the program aims to help participants get their lives organized rather than locking them up. So far, it looks like it’s working.
The 203 participants in the program are 34 to 58 percent less likely to commit further crimes compared with people who are prosecuted and imprisoned, according to an independent review conducted by the University of Washington. There are more studies to come, but the first formal look at the program offered encouraging results.
‘It’s not like drug court, it doesn’t involve abstinence, and doesn’t require people to stop using substances.’
“The stats are so robust, which took me by surprise,” said Susan Collins, a clinical psychologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine who co-authored the study. “The offenders were basically committing crimes of homelessness, they’re basically just [doing enough petty crime] to survive. This program is trying to break the jail-to-street-to-jail cycle. But, it’s not like drug court, it doesn’t involve abstinence, and doesn’t require people to stop using substances.” Read more…