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Critics Say New Plan to Stop Heroin Overdoses Shows White House 'Still Doesn’t Get It'

A new federal initiative aims to prevent overdoses by having public health and law enforcement officials work together, but some say it’s “destined to fail."
August 17, 2015, 10:00pm
Photo by Carolyn Thompson/AP

The White House unveiled a new yearlong initiative to combat heroin overdoses on Monday, announcing a pilot program in 15 states where heroin-related deaths have surged.

The government's $2.5 million Heroin Response Strategy will focus on tracing the origins of bad heroin batches back to individual traffickers and distributors in 15 of 28 of America's High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA), including in Appalachia, New England, Philadelphia, New York, New Jersey, and Maryland.

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Funding will also go toward training first responders on how to deal with heroin and prescription opioid-related incidents, including in the use of naloxone —also known as Narcan — a life-saving medication that can reverse the effects of opioid overdose within minutes.

"The new Heroin Response Strategy demonstrates a strong commitment to address the heroin and prescription opioid epidemic as both a public health and a public safety issue," Michael Botticelli, director of the White House's National Drug Control Policy (NDCP) said in a statement. "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."

Heroin overdoses nearly quadrupled from 2002 to 2013 as use of the opioid increased by more than 63 percent, according to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The trend has been labeled an "epidemic" in some states, and lawmakers have rushed to respond with emergency measures, including laws to expand access to naloxone.

Watch the VICE News documentary, Back From The Brink: Heroin's Antidote:

Related: Why America's Ongoing Heroin Epidemic May Soon Run Its Course

While the statement from ONDCP said that the new strategy will also "create linkages to available prevention and treatment resources," Botticelli did not say specifically how the new effort will help provide treatment for addicts. Instead, the director named other programs and initiatives as examples of the overarching federal response to "prevention treatment expansion," including Medicaid coverage of substance abuse treatment, and continued funding of state grants for treatment and recovery programs.

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An unnamed White House official told the Washington Post that the strategy is a step toward "both reducing crime and reducing the number of people who end up in emergency rooms."

The official said the program will involve 15 new public health officers and 15 drug intelligence officers working under two coordinators, who will work with task forces in the target areas to help track overdoses, report dangerous batches of heroin, and distribute information to relevant law enforcement authorities.

Drug policy reformers are not sold on the government's new strategy. The National Drug Policy Alliance (NDPA), A New York-based nonprofit working to reform drug laws, said Monday that the White House is taking "one step forward, two steps back," and that "over reliance on law enforcement is destined to fail."

Related: Police in This Massachusetts Town Have Started Helping Heroin Users Instead of Arresting Them

"[The program] appears to be a step in the right direction, but the more you read, the more you realize the administration still doesn't get it," Ethan Nadelmann, the NDPA's founder and executive director, told VICE News. "The Obama administration still seems to believe drug treatment needs to be provided through the criminal justice system, whereas most of the evidence suggests treatment is best provided outside the criminal justice system."

Government officials say the merging of public health and law enforcement operations is intended help authorities trace deadly batches of heroin laced with products such as fentanyl, a potent opiate that can lead to fatal overdoses when mixed with heroin. The data collected will allow law enforcement "to see where fentanyl-laced heroin is turning up, in real time, so we can react," the unnamed official told the Washington Post.

'The more you read, the more you realize the administration still doesn't get it.'

Nadelmann was skeptical of that claim, however, telling VICE News that federal authorities are still placing too much emphasis on locking people up. "If the focus is going to be on trying to track down heroin laced with fentanyl, connecting this to a serious law enforcement effort that results in arrests is not the way to go," he said.

Funding for the heroin strategy follows the Obama administration's announcement in February of new efforts to crack down on opioid use. The initiative includes $133 in funding to "address America's heroin and prescription drug abuse overdose epidemic," and to expand medication-assisted treatment. It also comes a month after the president announced plans to reform the criminal justice system, including fairer sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders. Obama recently commuted the sentences of 46 drug offenders.

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Related: Health Officials Are 'Deeply Concerned' About the Spike in Fentanyl Deaths in Canada

Nadelmann said that while the public health and prevention aspects of the strategy are "positive," there's much room for improvement, and that more resources should be redirected toward drug treatment programs.

The NDPA is one of several groups and activists pushing to nationalize so-called "Good Samaritan" laws, which encourage people to seek medical assistance by providing criminal immunity to people who call 911 to report overdoses. The effort also seeks to expand access to naloxone, and provide training for administering it. Naloxone is restricted in many parts of the country because the FDA classifies it as a substance that requires a prescription, meaning a healthcare provider or first responders must administer it.

"It's not just about putting naloxone in the hands of first responders, it's about removing the barriers to accessing the medication," Nadelmann said. "Even in some of the states where Good Samaritan laws exist, they're inadequate, or some people don't know they exist."

At least 24 states and Washington, DC now have laws that allow varying levels of access to naloxone. Some of the measures include allowing doctors to prescribe the antidote medication to a drug user's friends or relatives.

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields