SALEM — As the district attorney for Essex County, Jonathan Blodgett has been confronting the opioid crisis for more than a decade.
On Tuesday, a national organization dedicated to fighting addiction came to Salem to honor Blodgett and others for their efforts against the seemingly intractable crisis.
In a ceremony at the Hawthorne Hotel, the Washington, D.C.-based Addiction Policy Forum presented Blodgett with an Innovation Now award for the Essex County Drug Diversion Program.
The program, which began in 2007, offers treatment rather than prosecution for young adult non-violent offenders with substance use issues. The diversion program has served more than 1,000 people, with 60 percent of them completing the minimum six-month program.
Blodgett said he started the program after a "conversation on a street corner in Boston."
"I was asked by the person I was talking to, 'Are you willing to take a chance? Are you willing to try something different?" Blodgett said in accepting the award. "I said I was. But I said, 'Here's the deal. There's got to be accountability.'"
Blodgett said only two of the state's eight district courts had a diversion program at the time. Now all eight district courts have them.
The program allows people who have been arraigned on low-level drug-related charges to get treatment rather than face prosecution. Once the district attorney's office identifies offenders who are eligible, they are assigned a case manager from Bridgewell and offered a range of services, including medication-assisted therapy, residential treatment, and individual and group therapy.
The diversion program was limited to people from ages 17 to 25. Blodgett said the age restriction has since been eliminated, and a 75-year-old doctor is now in the program.
Blodgett said a high percentage of people in the program have mental health disorders that need to be treated along with their addiction, so it's important to find the services that suit them best.
"It's a challenge to put the person in the right setting based upon the intake," he said.
Kimberly Clapp, Addiction Policy Forum's executive vice president for community relations, called Blodgett "a model for the country" in his approach as a district attorney to addiction problems.
"The Essex County Drug Diversion Program is changing the way we address addiction," she said.
The Addiction Policy Forum presented six other Innovation Awards to Massachusetts programs in the fields of prevention, treatment, recovery, law enforcement and child welfare. One of them went to Breed Middle School in Lynn for its "Breed All Stars Program," a leadership program for at-risk students.
Blodgett said he was involved in the initial discussions about forming the program after hearing Lynn School Superintendent Catherine Latham, a former teacher of his, say at a forum five years ago that 265 students from Lynn came from families with substance abuse disorders.
"It was a punch in the face for me," he said.
The Breed All Stars Program identifies at-risk students and tells them that they are the leaders of the school. It meets twice a week and teaches students about substance misuse, prevention and leadership.
"It's probably the best thing I ever did as district attorney," Blodgett said about helping to start the program.
The Arlington Police Department was also recognized Tuesday for its opiate outreach efforts. The department is a member of the Gloucester-based Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, which started to Gloucester's angel program in 2015, and former Arlington police Chief Frederick Ryan sits on PAARI's board of directors.
Other awards went to To the Moon and Back, which supports children born with substance exposure and their caregivers; Column Health, an outpatient treatment provider with five locations in Massachusetts; Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery, a Boston-based recovery community organization; and Project ASSERT, which provides treatment for people who show up in a hospital emergency department with substance use behavior.
Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or email@example.com.