White House Launches Program To Fight Heroin Epidemic

Aug 17, 2015
Originally published on August 17, 2015 7:48 pm
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More than 35,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2013. That's the last year for which numbers are available. Prescription opioids and heroin lead the way. And today, the White House announced new funding to deal with the problem and a new approach. In a minute, we'll hear from the director of National Drug Control Policy, but first, here's NPR's Tamara Keith.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: In making its announcement, the White House drug policy office said prescription opioid addiction and heroin abuse need to be treated as a public health problem and not just a public safety issue. This is something people on the front lines have been saying for a long time. Take Eli Rivera, the sheriff of Cheshire County in New Hampshire, who spoke last week at a forum on substance abuse.

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ELI RIVERA: We're not going to arrest our way out of this problem, that's for sure. And I can tell you that we can - we can arrest as many people as we want. The next day there's somebody behind waiting to step in.

TYM ROURKE: If we cannot arrest our way out of it, which I think I and many others - most others - absolutely agree with, then what do we do?

KEITH: Tym Rourke is chairman of the Governor's Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention in New Hampshire. It's a state hit hard by heroin and prescription opioid addiction. More than 300 people in the small state died from overdoses last year alone. He says what's novel about the White House announcement is that it brings together the fields of public health and public safety to deal with people who are already addicted.

ROURKE: This is a ripe moment for us to look at how to leverage sort of the best of both worlds to really make sure that people are getting the help that they need so they don't end up in a cemetery or in a jail, but more get into the services that they need to get well.

KEITH: The strategy is focused on 15 states with the most severe problems and includes funding to reduce trafficking and distribution of heroin and money to bolster prevention efforts - $13.4 million in all. It also creates an early detection system so public health officers can, for instance, identify bad batches of heroin entering the system and get more supplies of an overdose reversing treatment into the affected area. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.