Officials look to LEAD program to try drug treatment instead of arrests


The city of Portland and Multnomah County are together embarking on a big change in the way officials fight the war on drugs, offering those caught with drugs treatment before jail.

The new approach, which officially kicks off Tuesday morning, looks at drug addicts not as criminals but as those in need of medical help.

Officials call the new program Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, and describe it as an intensive case management program.

Portland Police Bureau officers will be on the frontlines of the program starting in two high-traffic areas of the city, Old Town and the Lloyd District.

Under the new plan, if an officer catches someone with drugs the officer will offer the arrestee a choice - jail or the LEAD program.

Proponents say the program is recognition by city and county legal authorities that jail can’t stop addiction, only treatment can.

Hubert Matthews Jr., an addict for 20 years, said he was in and out of jail “a hundred times.” Now sober for 9 years, he works with Central City Concern, which will manage the LEAD program.

Matthews said he would have gotten off drugs sooner if there had been a LEAD program when he was using, and he will serve as one of the program's first caseworkers.

“If an officer would have come to me and instead of saying, ‘OK, you're under arrest, you're going to jail,’ he would have said to me, ‘Well, there is a program that can help you change your life, and if you choose a program then you don't have to go to jail,’ I would have chosen the program,” he said. “I hope to be able to bring some hope to the addicts that are downtown, (in the) Old Town area or anywhere that they too can have some hope.”

The program started in Seattle, and officials there say they've reduced recidivism by almost 60 percent. It also saves money, with jail time costing more than twice as much as treatment.

The county estimates the lead program will help maybe a third to a quarter of the residents in the county who need it.

It is funded by Multnomah County, and county officials have promised to keep up the funding and expand the program if it has the expected results.

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