White House Unveils Million-Dollar Heroin Response Strategy

By Zachary Siegel 08/18/15

The administration is pushing a "smart on crime" approach to tackling the heroin epidemic.

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In response to the surge of heroin use and abuse across America, the White House is planning to pair law enforcement officials with public health analysts to treat, rather than jail, drug users.

Announced on Monday, the Heroin Response Strategy plans to tackle heroin use along the Eastern seaboard with funds from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).

Under the Heroin Response Strategy, 15 drug intelligence officers and 15 health policy officials will collect data on overdoses and other trends in heroin trafficking. Training first responders to reverse overdose by naloxone injection is also part of the new plan.

Michael Botticelli, director of the ONDCP, said that $2.5 million will initially be used to target “High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas,” mostly states that have been hit the hardest by heroin use. These areas include Appalachia, New England, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. Other states with high rates of heroin-related deaths will also receive aid from the program.

The new strategy is a “smart on crime” approach to what the Centers for Disease Control has called a heroin epidemic, said Botticelli in a statement.

In the past decade, heroin use has doubled among people aged 18 to 25. Furthermore, some 45% of current heroin users in the U.S. are also addicted to prescription painkillers, according to the CDC. One of the more shocking statistics claim that nearly half of heroin addicts were initially addicted to prescription medication. Given this, the Heroin Response Strategy will also target opiate-based painkillers.

Aside from the usual efforts by law enforcement to trace the heroin supply, the Obama administration is encouraging local law enforcement to increase access to treatment for addicts. Jailing people with addiction has had less than desirable results, and with this new program, people who use drugs will be offered treatment services in lieu of punishment.

According to the National Institute of Justice, 76.9% of drug offenders are bound to be rearrested, usually for crimes related to their drug addiction. If more people are offered treatment, recidivism rates are expected to drop.

Such criminal justice reform for individuals with addictions has long been advocated by many who have seen the destruction that the war on drugs has caused both addicts and their families.

"This Administration will continue to expand community-based efforts to prevent drug use, pursue 'smart on crime' approaches to drug enforcement, increase access to treatment, work to reduce overdose deaths, and support the millions of Americans in recovery,” Botticelli said in a statement.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.