The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
In the recent past there have been letters to the editor and guest opinions that have painted an inaccurate picture regarding local efforts to steer those suffering from substance use disorders toward treatment, while reserving prosecutorial resources for those who profit from the sale of drugs. Each time, the story is told that local law enforcement officials and prosecutors are somehow “padding conviction stats” by unnecessarily jailing and imprisoning people for possession of small amounts of illegal drugs, a false narrative is reinforced that not only could not be further from the truth, but is, in fact, hurtful to the efforts that are unprecedented in the region and state to assist those who struggle with addiction.
Efforts to move toward a treatment model for drug offenders have been the standard throughout Pima County for some time. Over the past three years, extraordinary efforts have been made with the policing, prosecution, treatment, and harm reduction communities working together to deal with an explosion in overdose deaths. Treatment options have expanded under the Affordable Care Act, allowing virtually everyone in Tucson the option of drug treatment. As a result of this, treatment outcomes have dramatically improved.
In Tucson, police officers have the option of referring a person to treatment instead of taking them to jail through a program known as “Deflection.” In addition, every drug possession case generated in Tucson is reviewed before issuing during a program called “Second Chance Deflection,” when treatment is offered again to some of those people arrested before they are indicted.
If an individual charged with a drug possession crime is indicted, the Pima County attorney directs many cases through a program it operates called Felony Drug Diversion, in which the defendant is offered treatment instead of prosecution. Those unsuccessful in diversion and found guilty are offered an opportunity to succeed on probation by entering “Drug Court.”
Even those who are convicted multiple times are offered a more intensive drug court program known as the Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison. The police officers and prosecutors involved with these programs are integral to the success of all of the efforts to move people away from prosecution toward treatment. They have demonstrated a commitment to treatment that has helped change the culture in law enforcement.
Outside of the possession of small personal use amounts of narcotics, there is no such thing as a nonviolent drug offender. People making money off of the trafficking and sale of narcotics and dangerous drugs deal in death. Over 300 people in Pima County died last year from drug overdoses, an all-time high. There is nothing nonviolent about these preventable deaths. For the first time in at least 40 years, overdose deaths are being investigated as the homicide deaths they are. People are being held accountable for their part in providing the poison that has taken so many good people’s lives. The prosecutions are difficult, but have been embraced by the Pima County Attorney’s Office, who has led in Arizona in getting justice for the families of the victims of overdoses.
Working together, law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, treatment providers and harm reduction specialists are making progress. To push the false narrative that something else is going on is to impugn the motives, hard work, and dedication of a significant group of people that have been “doing the right thing.” We hope others troubled by the human suffering associated with substance abuse disorder will join us in creating the pathway out of this epidemic.
John Leavitt is a captain with the Tucson Police Department and commander of the Counter Narcotics Alliance. He has been with the Police Department for 37 years.