COVINGTON, LA (WVUE) - If you're addicted to drugs or alcohol in St. Tammany Parish - or virtually anywhere on the North Shore - help is as close as your phone or the local police station. An unprecedented coalition of law enforcement entities came together Monday to unveil a rehab approach called Operation Angel.
"I almost lost everything, my soul," said attorney Buddy Spell, who joined a wide coalition of elected officials from St. Tammany to Tangipahoa Parish to announce the initiative.
"It's time to treat this as a disease and not a crime," said Covington Police Chief Tim Lentz.
Sheriffs and police chiefs from as far away as Covington, Hammond and Pearl River, say if you're a drug user and need help, give them a call.
"Just walk into the sheriff's office, and say 'i need help,' and we will help," said Lentz.
From there, police will take you to the Giving Hope retreat near Lacombe, operated by the New Orleans Mission.
"It's all donor-based. It's God's work. He provides," said Joe Lonardo with the retreat.
Through similar counseling, Spell twice beat addiction issues.
"I was really in a bad, bad painful place. I had run off most of the people who loved me, and I felt that my soul was dying," said Spell.
While the program is designed to help drug addicts, St. Tammany Sheriff-Elect Randy Smith said drug distributors will get no break.
"I do want to warn anyone dealing drugs will be prosecuted to the fullest," Smith said.
The goal is to get help for users before they get arrested.
"If it's one, it's worth it. Whoever walks in, we get them help. I hope it's a bunch," Lentz said.
"My life is better than I could have ever dreamed it could be, and everything I was looking for in self-medication I found in recovery," Spell said.
He is confident that Operation Angel will make a difference for others.
"This is the best thing that's happened in St. Tammany since I came here 20 years ago. We have been notoriously unforgiving," Spell said.
It's now up to users to see police as their ally in a fight that might otherwise place them at odds. Parish officials say Operation Angel is similar to a program that started in Massachusetts and has now been picked up by 23 states. The North Shore is the first area in Louisiana to adopt it.
Lentz says since the announcement was made Monday, a heroin addict brought himself in for treatment.