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Seattle Makes Headlines For Unique Approach To Addiction

Often times, we feel it’s helpful to to explore how other big cities across the country are handling addiction. In that vein, we recently ran across an article that highlighted Seattle, Washington and its progressive approach to the opioid crisis. Their tactics are quite different from most regions (including our home base of SoCal). But, truth be told, they are showing a significant success ratio.

The model embraced by this particular city steers away from criminal prosecution and harsh sentences for drug users. Instead, people caught with small amounts of substances are steered toward social services to get help.

The New York Times published a lengthy profile piece on Seattle’s approach, emphasizing that they are, in essence, decriminalizing the use of hard drugs. One champion of the movement is local prosecutor Dan Satterberg, who has a personal connection to the cause.

Satterberg’s younger sister, Shelley, fought addiction for most of her adult life and ultimately succumbed to it. He saw firsthand the legal system fail her and steer her away from a life of sobriety.

“My sister’s addiction experience gave me some insight about what works better than jail,” Satterberg explained in the Times piece. “What Shelley needed was not a jail cell and not a judge wagging a finger at her, but she needed some support.”

So as he rose through the ranks in Seattle’s political system, Satterberg worked to develop a program that could help people similar to his sister. What transpired was LEAD (short for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion), an initiative that did not arrest drug users for narcotics but rather diverted them to social case management.

Since going into effect back in 2011, LEAD has brought forth some impressive results. For one thing, those who entered the program were 58 percent less likely to be rearrested (when compared to a control group). One graduate, Chian Jennings, spoke to the Times as well, praising the success of the program.

“It was probably the best thing that happened to me,” Jennings told the site. “It saved my life. Now I work to make these people proud of me.”

Opponents do point out that LEAD is costly (running roughly $350 a month per participant) and difficult to execute across most major U.S. cities. But you cannot argue with its success and the long term benefits of keeping nonviolent users out of jail. We are definitely hopeful that it can someday be embraced on a wider scale.