White House Heroin Program Targets Regional Hotspots, But Critics Say It Doesn't Go Far Enough

White House Heroin Program Targets Regional Hotspots, But Critics Say It Doesn't Go Far Enough

The new White House Heroin Program Response Strategy is aimed at combating the national rise in heroin abuse by concentrating on regions of the country considered the most affected. The $13.4 million funding has been allocated to what are called "High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA)." "Of that, $5 million will be directed to a broad range of efforts that will reduce the trafficking, distribution, and use of heroin - a drug that has emerged as a serious threat to multiple regions of the United States," according to a White House statement. "In particular," the statement says, "$2.5 million will fund the Heroin Response Strategy, an unprecedented partnership among five regional HIDTA programs - Appalachia, New England, Philadelphia/Camden, New York/New Jersey, and Washington/Baltimore - to address the severe heroin threat facing those communities through public health-public safety partnerships across 15 states." Michael Boticelli, Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said that the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program "helps Federal, state, and local authorities to coordinate drug enforcement operations, support prevention efforts and improve public health and safety. 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." Botticelli added that "the 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." Nearly $4 million has been allocated to support prevention efforts in 18 additional regional HIDTA programs. Many of these will rely on "key partnerships between law enforcement agencies and their counterparts in public health and education." And an additional $1.3 million has been earmarked to five regional HIDTA programs along the Southwest border "in recognition of the unique drug challenges faced by law enforcement agencies in the region along the U.S.-Mexico border," the White House statement said.

HIDTA programs are not new

The HIDTA regional programs aren't new. They were created by Congress in 1988 to help coordinate federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies struggling to contain drug trafficking in the worst-hit areas of the country. There are currently 28 HIDTAs located in 48 states, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia. The current initiative is aimed at fostering "a collaborative network of public health-public safety partnerships to address the heroin/opioid epidemic from multiple perspectives." It is hoped that it will enhance the efficiency of law enforcement operations. The five main regional HIDTAs create a 15-state network of experienced, connected law enforcement contacts which will "leverage these connections and information-gathering capabilities with a strong, complementary, analytical capacity." Public health "coordinators" are expected to work with law enforcement to help stem cross-border smuggling, as well as monitor heroin use and issue warnings if they see "dangerous batches" of heroin on the street - heroin which has been cut with and contaminated by dangerous chemical additives. Botticelli emphasized that the benefits of such cooperation between public health officials and law enforcement are paramount to the program's success. "It's often our law enforcement folks who have more timely information, but there was never a forum for that kind of information-sharing. Often those of us on the public health side were dealing with 6-month-old or year-old data," he said. The Heroin Response Strategy didn't outline any new efforts to extend treatment for addicts. But Boticelli did name other recent initiatives as examples of the federal response to "prevention treatment expansion" including Medicaid coverage of substance abuse treatment and funding of state grants for treatment and recovery programs.

Not everyone was happy with the funding program

All across America, people are dying of heroin overdoses at an alarming rate. Heroin-related deaths have quintupled since 2002. Obviously, programs aimed at eradicating heroin from our streets and preventing and treating addictions are far from adequate. For these reasons, not everyone with an axe to grind - either professionally or politically - was satisfied with the level of funding announced by the White House. According to a report on MSNBC, within hours of the announced programs high profile critics attacked the plan as an attempt to co-opt the rhetoric of reform without adopting the actual policies. Although the HIDTA program was founded in 1988, ten years later Congress turned around and banned the use of High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas to directly fund drug treatment programs in 1998. So now, the new grants require hiring of new coordinators in each region. Thomas McLellan, who was Chief Scientist for Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2012, told MSNBC he's been horrified at the death rate from heroin-related overdoses. He said the epidemic is "cutting through class and color lines to become as popular as crack cocaine in the 1980s-all without inspiring a major federal response." "Our reply is $2.5 million? That isn't close to the financial commitment that's needed," McLellan said. "There are research-tested, cost effective public health and public safety measures that could reduce opioid use and related deaths, but not at this price. I hope they ultimately take this problem seriously and provide the commitment the public is looking for." Former congressman Patrick Kennedy, a recovering addict himself, said that the heroin epidemic is "ravaging the country and officials need to step-up and address its dire consequences in all 50 states, not just a handful of counties." Bill Piper, director of the National Drug Policy Alliance's (ONDP) office of national affairs, said the new plan is only half right. "Half of what they're doing is right - the focus on health and overdose prevention - but the other half, the side that focuses on the failed arrest and incarceration policies of the past is destined to ruin lives and fail." And Ethan Nadelmann, the NDPA's founder and executive director, said that 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. 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."

Here at Novus the work goes on

We would encourage federal and state funders to increase their understanding of (and increase their funding for) the real needs of the treatment sector. Nevertheless, our work continues unabated helping patients get their lives back. Our medically personalized opioid-opiate withdrawal and detox programs are far superior to the 'one-size-fits-all' approaches encountered at so many other detox centers.

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