Drug Addiction Fight Unites Congress

Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, left, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., talk with Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vt., before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on attacking America’s epidemic of heroin and prescription drug abuse. CREDIT: AP PHOTO, ALEX BRANDON

The alarming national spike in opioid addiction, and the subsequent rise in overdose deaths, appears to have shaken a traditionally-stubborn Congress into overwhelming agreement.

Passing bipartisan laws through Congress has become increasingly rare over the past few years — but with opioid addiction chipping away at nearly every state, it’s become impossible for lawmakers to ignore the need for organized action. And as a staunchly divided Congress slowly erases party lines to draft a bill before the summer recess, it could just happen.

Some lawmakers have already begun to push bills forward. One bill drafted by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) has garnered the most bipartisan support since its February 12 introduction. Known as the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, the legislation is all-encompassing — promising grants to educate governments of opioid treatment; incentives to purchase naloxone, a drug that reverses the affects of an heroin overdose; and pledging an overall reduction in unnecessary opioid prescriptions.

So far, there’s been little opposition to legislation that promises a “holistic” solution the the crisis. Even President Obama’s recent request for $1.1 million to tackle opioid abuse left the usual GOP naysayers quiet.

“I support providing additional resources to help fight this epidemic,” Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), one of the bill’s cosponsors, told NPR. “It has significant support from both sides of the aisle, as well as from doctors, nurses, first responders, those in recovery and other experts in the field.”

Despite the agreement that Congress needs to work toward a solution in this area, some worry that a demanding bill like Whitehouse’s could eventually stagnate.

“We’ve seen that when we try to do big comprehensive bills sometimes they get weighed down and nothing happens,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn told the Washington Post. “So I think we’re going to have to make a prudential decision about how much weight and additional topics that this kind of legislation can bear.”

Cornyn is also working to tack a contentious mental health bill onto any opioid package going forward — a move most Democrats oppose. But the fact that this — along with a few lawmakers nudging anti-immigration efforts into the discussion — is the only upset in Congress’ universal support of anti-addiction legislation makes this effort somewhat historic.

Widespread agreement on anti-addition legislation isn’t limited to Capitol Hill. This week, representatives from the National Governor’s Association will present a bipartisan proposal to Obama outlining statewide opioid treatment guidelines for doctors and drug companies.

Addiction has also taken center stage at many stops along the presidential campaign trail. At a January addiction forum in New Hampshire, one of the states hit the hardest by recent the opioid crisis, four Republican candidates shared their own personal stories with addiction and mental illness, calling for holistic health solutions rather than criminalizing addicts. A recent Democratic debate also brought candidates together in their support of anti-addiction action.

This noteworthy progress, however, is often criticized for being directly spurred by the characteristics of the new population of addicts: white and middle-class. For decades, drug addiction in predominately black, poor communities was ignored or criminalized by GOP lawmakers. Now, instead of being a “junkie,” a heroin addict has a “substance use disorder,”and could be a daughter or a coworker.

“Until we acknowledge the complex ways in which racial perceptions frame public policy, we risk reinforcing a two-tiered approach that only hardens social divisions,” wrote Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project, in a Guardian op-ed.

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