Seattle’s LEAD Drug Program is Working

In 2011 Seattle instituted LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion), a harm-reduction program centered around drug crime in their Belltown district. Now, four years later, the positive results are showing.

What is LEAD?

According to LEAD’s official website, the program “allows law enforcement officers to redirect low-level offenders engaged in drug or prostitution activity to community-based services, instead of jail and prosecution. By diverting eligible individuals to services, LEAD is committed to improving public safety and public order, and reducing the criminal behavior of people who participate in the program. People who get arrested for the sale and possession of crack, heroin and other illegal drugs are no longer automatically thrown in jail and prosecuted. Instead, officers with the Seattle Police Department now have the option of giving these offenders a choice: leave the precinct the old-fashioned way, in handcuffs, or meet with a counselor at a social-service agency and avoid the court system altogether.”

How does LEAD work?

For those who make the latter decision, they no longer are charged with a crime and are now referred to as clients. Depending on their situation, they may receive access to apartment living free of charge, new clothes, financial help for college, literature for school or even classes for yoga. Each client is assigned a counselor, which, after leading them through a bureaucratic maze, will help them apply for employment, food relief programs, health insurance and other living essentials.

All clients have to do when entering the program is agree to see a counselor at least twice within their first month of the program. The clients are not drug tested, nor do they even have to promise to stop using drugs. They are simply introduced to a lifestyle better than they one they had been indulging in.

Why is LEAD important?

The idea behind a program like LEAD is to promote “harm reduction”, meaning that proponents of the program believe that they can rein in the secondary effects of drug addiction such as poverty, homelessness and diseases such as HIV or Hepatitis C, by helping people who are unable to stop using drugs.

“The war on drugs is largely a failure,” Lisa Daugaard, deputy director of Seattle’s Public Defender Association said, adding that she found the police were willing to try a different approach. “Even though a lot of people now agree on that, we’re still using the same tactics because there’s a lack of consensus on how to go forward. LEAD is a next step in that conversation.”

Despite the war on drugs, the growth of the drug trade has more or less been unimpeded. The idea that those affected by drug use and abuse can be catered to rather than punished presents a revolutionary and fresh way of looking at addiction. If addicts and alcoholics are exposed to new opportunities and a better way of life, they can make the decision for themselves to do something about their disease and lead a different lifestyle.

What is the future for programs like LEAD?

LEAD’s future is uncertain. The program’s annual $1.5 million budget — a bill split between the city of Seattle and several private foundations — will run dry in early 2016. Proponents say future studies are needed not only to demonstrate LEAD’s efficacy, but also to prove that it’s cost effective because it conserves law enforcement and justice system resources.

The idea of helping addicts rather than incarcerating them has been a hot topic for years at this point, with many people coming around to the idea that the decades long “war on drugs” has been an exercise in futility. What are your thoughts on helping, rather than punishing drug addicts?

Last Updated on August 7, 2023


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