Congress Wrestles with Solutions for Heroin Epidemic

There has been a 286 percent increase in overdose deaths since 2010.

Used syringes are discarded at a needle exchange clinic where users can pick up new syringes and other clean items for those dependent on heroin.
National Journal
Colby Bermel
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Colby Bermel
July 27, 2015, 4 p.m.

Two weeks after a series of hear­ings on man­dat­ory-min­im­um sen­ten­cing, a House Ju­di­ciary sub­pan­el on Tues­day will meet with of­fi­cials to dis­cuss what mem­bers say is a grow­ing heroin epi­dem­ic in Amer­ica.

Sev­er­al pro­posed bills un­der con­sid­er­a­tion in both cham­bers would es­tab­lish in­ter­agency task forces for heroin and opi­ate mat­ters. Crime Sub­com­mit­tee Chair­man Jim Sensen­bren­ner has also in­tro­duced a bill that would give fed­er­al money to states for edu­ca­tion, pre­ven­tion, and treat­ment ef­forts.

But there has been no form­al an­nounce­ment from the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee as to what le­gis­la­tion — present or fu­ture — will be in­cluded in its crim­in­al-justice-re­form ini­ti­at­ive. A late June listen­ing ses­sion or­gan­ized by the com­mit­tee, an aide said, con­sidered all pro­posed le­gis­la­tion from law­makers, a dozen of whom presen­ted.

Con­gress and the ad­min­is­tra­tion both seem to re­cog­nize the heroin epi­dem­ic as a threat to pub­lic health and safety. Ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion, there has been a 286 per­cent in­crease in over­dose deaths since 2010, and the use of heroin has in­creased among most demo­graph­ic groups since 2002. The drug is cheap­er to ob­tain than pre­scrip­tion paink­illers, ac­cord­ing to the Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion, and heroin and opi­ates have many of the same ef­fects on the body.

An­gela Pacheco, the first ju­di­cial dis­trict at­tor­ney for Santa Fe, told Na­tion­al Journ­al that her Tues­day testi­mony would dis­cuss law-en­force­ment-as­sisted di­ver­sion, a com­munity-poli­cing strategy in which of­ficers who know their neigh­bor­hoods can dir­ect in­di­vidu­als with ad­dic­tions to a treat­ment pro­gram in­stead of ar­rest­ing them. Pacheco says this not only saves gov­ern­ments money, but pro­motes com­pas­sion.

“It’s sav­ing lives and al­low­ing the per­son to re­claim their in­teg­rity,” she said. “This is not for every­one. It’s for some people, and for the people that it works, it saves their lives and makes them in­to pro­duct­ive mem­bers of the com­munity.”

Also un­der re­view by the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee are the is­sues of over-crim­in­al­iz­a­tion, crim­in­al pro­ced­ures, poli­cing strategies, and civil-as­set for­feit­ure.

“Crim­in­al justice is about pun­ish­ing law-break­ers, pro­tect­ing the in­no­cent, the fair ad­min­is­tra­tion of justice, and fisc­al re­spons­ib­il­ity in a man­ner that is re­spons­ive to the needs of com­munit­ies,” Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bob Good­latte and Rank­ing Mem­ber John Con­yers said in a joint state­ment.

This blitz on crim­in­al-justice re­form isn’t just hap­pen­ing in the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee. While dis­cuss­ing his sup­port of the bi­par­tis­an SAFE Justice Act earli­er this month, House Speak­er John Boehner said many people in pris­on “really don’t need to be there.” And Pres­id­ent Obama has spoken out force­fully on re­form, say­ing, “I don’t think that the crim­in­al-justice sys­tem is ob­vi­ously the sole source of ra­cial ten­sion in this coun­try, or the key in­sti­tu­tion to resolv­ing the op­por­tun­ity gap. But I think it is a part of the broad­er set of chal­lenges that we face in cre­at­ing a more per­fect uni­on.”

Else­where Tues­day, the House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee will be­gin a markup on the Pro­tect­ing Our In­fants Act, in­tro­duced by Demo­crat­ic Rep. Kath­er­ine Clark, a bill that seeks to pre­vent pren­at­al opioid ab­use and neonat­al ab­stin­ence syn­drome. A com­mit­tee re­view of the Stop Over­dose Stat Act, in­tro­duced by Demo­crat­ic Rep. Donna Ed­wards, is still in the re­view pro­cess.

Two of Tues­day’s wit­nesses are top ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials: Of­fice of Na­tion­al Drug Con­trol Policy Dir­ect­or Mi­chael Bot­ti­celli and Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion Act­ing Deputy Ad­min­is­trat­or Jack Ri­ley. Nancy Parr, the com­mon­wealth’s at­tor­ney for Ches­apeake, Vir­gin­ia, is also sched­uled to testi­fy.

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