Beacon Hill undergoes revolution in way it views drug users

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BOSTON >> Jail time is out. Treatment is in.

Spurred by a seemingly intractable opioid crisis that has claimed thousands of Massachusetts lives in recent years, political leaders have undergone a revolution in the way they view drug users.

Even Gov. Charlie Baker — whose old Statehouse boss, former Republican Gov. William Weld, championed mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes — is pushing to eliminate what he's called the stigma of drug addiction.

"When you are labeled as an addict, a lowlife, a junkie, it sticks. Hard," the GOP governor said in November. "Addiction is not a choice, addiction is a disease. It's a disease that's no different from diabetes or heart disease or congestive heart failure."

Baker's comments have been echoed by top Democrats, from Attorney General Maura Healey to House Speaker Robert DeLeo. In Gloucester, police have garnered national attention for a policy of helping addicts get into treatment rather than arresting them.

Democratic Senate President Stan Rosenberg gave a blunt answer this week for the swift evolution of thinking about opioids, addiction and crime.

"When certain communities were where most of the activity took place, society in general saw it as a crime," he told reporters. "As soon as it became a widespread situation affecting communities all across the commonwealth, people from all economic backgrounds ... it suddenly changed from a crime to a disease."

It wasn't always this way.

During an earlier drug crisis in the 1980s and 1990s Massachusetts, officials responded differently — approving, and later defending, mandatory sentences.

In 1996 — during a high-profile Senate campaign against then-Sen. John Kerry — Weld argued in favor of mandatory sentencing, saying it protects the public from lenient judges.

"We don't need to get rid of tough mandatory minimums for drug crimes — we need to put them in place for more violent crimes," said Weld, who hired Baker as his secretary of health and human services.

Critics of mandatory minimum sentences are hoping the current opioid crisis changes opinions.

Barb Dougan, Massachusetts project director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said it's not always easy to draw a line between those using drugs and those selling drugs.

"There are many low-level players in the drug trade who sell drugs, or help someone else sell drugs, to earn the money they need to support their addictions," she told the Legislature's Judiciary Committee last year.

The group is backing bills that would repeal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.

Attorney General Maura Healey has also called addiction "a disease in the same way we think about diabetes as a disease."

"For far too long we haven't treated addiction as a disease. We punish people," Healey said in a recent interview with the Associated Press. "The good news, I think, is that you see a shift now."

Healey isn't advocating abandoning the state's drug laws. She said the spike in opioid addiction has prompted an uptick in property crimes.

Last year, Healey pushed to make trafficking of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic drug sometimes mixed with heroin, a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

"We still need to make sure we are protecting public safety," she said.


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