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We Can’t Arrest Our Way Out of the Drug Problem

Jim Pugel
Still image from “We Can’t Arrest Our Way Out of the Drug Problem.”  The Seattle Police Department implemented the LEAD program, which diverts people who use drugs to services at point of arrest.

You can’t solve a public health crisis by locking people up. 

Jim Pugel knows this. After more than 30 years with the Seattle Police Department, he’s seen first-hand that sending people to prison for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses doesn’t work.

The incarceration rate for drug crimes in the United States expanded tenfold since 1980. Half of all people in federal prison are there on drug charges; most are not high-level actors in the drug trade and have no prior record for a violent offense. 

Arresting people for low-level drug use only ensures that once a person is released he or she is saddled with a criminal record that makes it harder to find employment, housing, or business and student loans. Essentially, they are stripped of the building blocks for leading a self-sufficient life.

This, along with legal challenges to racially disproportionate arrest rates, is why Pugel and a consortium of community groups started a program known as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, which offers treatment instead of jail time to drug users at the point of arrest.

Encouraging police officers to change their understanding of their role from enforcer to public servant, working for all members of the community, was tough, Pugel says, but essential. 

“As police commanders and as policy makers, we have to make clear that we have to support public health, or else public safety is going to be impossible.”

LEAD is funded in part by the Open Society Foundations. At Open Society is a video series highlighting the people and ideas that are inspiring our work—and changing the world.

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