Louisville will soon launch a new pilot program to divert individuals addicted to opioids away from the criminal justice system and into treatment thanks to a $400,000 federal grant.

This will be the state’s first Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program. The program first launched in Seattle in 2011 and is designed to allow police to send low-level and drug-related offenders to a structured treatment program instead of jail.

“The opioid crisis remains a vital concern to public safety in this community,” Mayor Greg Fischer stated in a press release announcing the new pilot project. “But incarceration cannot be the only option for those struggling with addiction. We must find ways to divert people to treatment and stem the tide of drug-related crime. This program is one more option for our community.”

Louisville’s new pilot program is focused on opioid-addicted individuals that police come into contact with in the Portland and Russell neighborhoods just west of downtown. Instead of taking them to jail, officers will take those who volunteer to participate to the Volunteers of America Mid-States triage center on West Broadway to be connected with a case manager.

Over the next 18 months, up to 50 qualifying individuals in Russell and Portland will receive addiction treatment and wrap-around services, with VOA in charge of their case management.

“We know that we can change people’s lives when we surround them with professional care and treatment and access to comprehensive support and services,” Jennifer Hancock, president and CEO of Volunteers of America Mid-States, said in the release. “Opioid use and addiction is a public health crisis, and LEAD will be successful because it offers a public health solution.”

The LEAD program is expected to be fully launched by Oct. 1 and is similar to the Living Room Project launched by Centerstone Kentucky last year, which allows police officers to connect those struggling with addiction or mental health issues with services at the nonprofit’s downtown location, instead of the downtown jail several blocks away. Metro Council included $1 million of funding for the Living Room Project to expand its services in the current fiscal year.

According to several analyses by Insider Louisville during the past year, the Portland area has been one of the places in the city hardest hit by the opioid epidemic, in terms of the number of overdose deaths, EMS overdose runs and patients who receive a dose of naloxone, the drug that revives the victims of an opioid overdose. Sixteen residents of the 40203 ZIP code — stretching from the east Portland through Russell, Limerick, Old Louisville and Smoketown — died of an overdose in 2017, a rate of 8.4 per 10,000 residents.

According to new statistics obtained by Insider from Louisville EMS, the number of individuals receiving naloxone from first responders on EMS overdose runs totaled 1,469 during the first seven months of 2018, an increase compared to the second half of last year. The latest numbers are still below the peak of Louisville’s opioid epidemic, which occurred during the first three months of 2017.

The number of EMS overdose runs and patients receiving naloxone from first responders on those runs from 2015 through July 2018. | Statistics via Louisville EMS

Dr. Sarah Moyer, the city’s chief health strategist and director of the Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness, told Insider that this decline in such overdoses from the peak of 2017 was “encouraging, but one overdose is still too many.”

“As a community we are certainly implementing many strategies to help save lives,” stated Moyer. “But we also know that someone with substance use disorder may shift to using other substances. That’s why it’s so important we continue to work to address the root causes of substance abuse which we laid out in our two-year plan, Hope, Healing and Recovery. We continue to work with a myriad of community partners to meet the 10 specific, measurable goals in the plan, such as more youth prevention programs and diversion programs like the LEAD project announced today.”

This story has been updated with Moyer’s comments.

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Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]