The Obama Administration’s Strategy On Heroin Addiction: Treat It As A Public Health Problem

The contents of a heroin overdose rescue kit CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CAROLYN THOMPSON

The Obama administration unveiled a new strategy to combat heroin abuse on Monday, pledging $2.5 million in additional funds to target five “high intensity drug trafficking areas.” The plan, which aims to pair law enforcement officials with health experts, is notable for its emphasis on connecting heroin users with treatment rather than focusing on putting them behind bars.

In the 15 states participating in the pilot program, a public health official will coordinate “heroin response teams” and help track the number of overdoses in their region. More first responders will be trained about how to administer naloxone, a drug that can reverse overdoses from heroin and prescription painkillers.

The new strategy “demonstrates a strong commitment to address the heroin and prescription opioid epidemic as both a public health and a public safety issue,” according to Michael Botticelli, the Obama administration’s director of national drug control policy.

Heroin deaths have been on the rise over the past several years, spurred in part by a recent crackdown on painkillers. As prescription drugs have become more tightly controlled, federal officials speculate that some opioid abusers have turned to heroin instead. The epidemic is particularly serious in rural areas in New England states.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the death rate from heroin overdoses has quadrupled over the past decade — an growing trend that caught many Americans’ attention after the death of prominent actor Philip Seymour Hoffman last year.

This issue has been on the administration’s radar for a while. Last year, former Attorney General Eric Holder called heroin addiction an “urgent and growing public health threat,” and the administration has repeatedly urged states to make it easier for cops to carry naloxone to prevent overdose deaths, rather than focusing on arresting users.

Some criminal justice experts have recently pointed out that the national response to this ongoing epidemic — one that’s focused on addiction treatment, health solutions, and “Good Samaritan” laws that shield people from prosecution if they’re seeking medical attention — stands in stark contrast to the country’s strategy to combat previous spikes in drug use, which were greeted with harsh prison sentences during the failed War on Drugs.

“The response to the rise in heroin use follows patterns we’ve seen over decades of drug scares. When the perception of the user population is primarily people of color, then the response is to demonize and punish. When it’s white, then we search for answers,” Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, an organization that works to close racial disparities in the criminal justice system, told the Marshall Project last week.

As opposed to the rise in heroin use in the 1960s, which was mainly seen as an “urban problem,” the current heroin epidemic is hitting mostly white towns in New England states like Vermont and New Hampshire. According to one 2014 study, almost 90 percent of the people who are trying heroin for the first time are white.

Mauer suggested that’s perhaps partly why approaching heroin as a public health issue has gained such bipartisan support. Indeed, even Obama’s most ardent opponents don’t have many objections to the White House’s new plan. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) applauded the effort as “a positive development for Kentucky’s efforts to fight the use of heroin that is hitting the commonwealth particularly hard.” And at least one Republican presidential candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), is on board with expanding access to naloxone without a prescription.