Presidential candidate Andrew Yang said Saturday that the Boston Police Department's recent wave of arrests in the South End area known as "Methadone Mile" was an ineffective way of addressing the widespread problem of opioid addiction in the city. Yang called for more emphasis to be placed on opportunity for rehabilitation for those struggling with drug addictions, rather than punishment.

“We have this harsh and punitive system that places all this responsibility on individuals. Meanwhile, there’s a system that’s preying on our people, particularly when it comes to addiction and opiates,” said Yang, who was campaigning in New Hampshire this weekend, in a phone interview with WGBH News Saturday. “If you’re caught in a system with addictive opiate addictions, you’re going to wind up with more people struggling, and so casting that sort of operation as necessary to clean up drug dealers or addictions seems to be wrong headed to me.”

In what they called "Operation Clean Sweep," Boston police launched a days-long series of arrests on Aug. 1 that resulted in the arrests of 34 people along in the area around Mass. Ave., Melnea Cass Boulevard, and Southampton Street — known as "Methadone Mile" for the volume of facilities designed to serve people struggling with alcohol and drug addictions. The arrests prompted sharp criticism from activists and some local officials, including Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu and Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins.

In an interview Friday on Boston Public Radio, Mayor Marty Walshdefended the sweep, insisting that the operation only targeted people with outstanding warrants, and specifically those charged with domestic abuse and drug dealing.

Yang said he believes that treating addiction as a criminal justice problem is the wrong approach. While he acknowledges that there is a need to fight illicit drug trafficking on the street, Yang said the opioid crisis falls heavily on the shoulders of the federal government and the pharmaceutical industry.

“The federal government allowed this plague to get started in the first place by letting Purdue Pharma dispense millions [of] oxy prescriptions around the country,” Yang said. “It’s a federal responsibility to put the resources to work to help clean it up. So, it’s not a money problem. It's a human problem. We have to do more to help the people on the ground, and that includes letting them know it’s not prison that we’re prescribing. It’s treatment.”

Yang, an entrepreneur who founded the nonprofit Venture for America and a former presidential ambassador for global entrepreneurship for President Barack Obama, has slowly been climbing in the polls. In recent polling conducted by the Economist and Politico in partnership with YouGov and Morning Consult, respectively, Yang has consistently been polling at 2 percent. He has hit both the donor and polling requirements to qualify for the third Democratic presidential candidate debate in September.

If elected, Yang said he plans to bring down addiction and overdose levels by 20 percent in four years by investing $15.5 billion a year into local treatment programs. To pay for the policy, he proposes levying a tax on all opiate manufacturers dating back to 2005.

Yang is also an advocate of opening supervised injection facilities. Yang pointed to the success that Portugal has had with decriminalizing drugs and referring individuals to treatment programs. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized drug use, and by 2015 saw their rate of HIV infection plummet from 104.2 per million new cases in 2001 to 4.2 by 2015. Portugal also has one of the lowest drug mortality rates in Europe, and far below that of the United States.

“In America, we tend to have a somewhat harsh, punitive view towards addiction where you have to hit rock bottom and pull yourself back up; but unfortunately with opiates, there’s often no coming back from rock bottom,” Yang said. “So, we need to start referring addicts to treatment instead of a jail cell.”

Yang also discussed the importance of expanding access to mental health treatment programs, particularly when it comes to combating gun violence. Reflecting on the shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, Yang said it’s important to pass stricter gun control legislation, but also examine other factors like access to education and mental health treatment.

“I was with victims of gun violence in the week afterwards and its devastating seeing the effect on individuals and families,” Yang said. “We need to break the stranglehold of the NRA on our legislature, but we also need to look at the earlier steps in the chain about what’s happening in our families, what’s happening in our schools, what’s happening in our mental health system, and why so many unfortunately respond to a culture of gun violence.”

In an address to the nation after the two shootings, President Donald Trump cast the blame on mental health and video games. Yang, however, said Trump’s response is nothing more than a political ploy, and said that the El Paso shooting was an act of domestic terrorism that should be treated as such.

“It’s clear to most every American that the most direct causes are access to deadly firearms [and] rhetoric that’s inciting hateful attitudes and violence,” Yang said. “Elevating video games as a cause of gun violence is just a political ploy and a distraction.”