Reversing the Trend: Investing in Education, Treatment, and Law Enforcement to Address Our Nation’s Heroin and Opioid Abuse Epidemic

Throughout the United States, prescription drug abuse is devastating individuals, families, and communities.  Increasingly, the drug crisis stemming from opioid prescription painkillers is becoming a heroin crisis, as those who become addicted turn to the cheaper, readily available illicit drug.

Maine has been severely harmed by this epidemic.  Last year, our state experienced a record 272 deaths caused by drug overdose – 107 from heroin, plus another 50 from prescription opioids.  That total is 64 deaths more than in 2014.  The upward trend is undeniable: overdose deaths in Maine increased by 34 percent between 2012 and 2014.  Even more alarming is the fact that drug overdose deaths in Maine nearly doubled – an increase of 96 percent – between 1999 and 2012.

This spiraling epidemic requires action.  As a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I worked to secure the Committee’s recent approval of $132 million to combat this crisis.  This legislation, which passed unanimously in the Committee and will now be taken up by the full Senate, funds vital programs to support law enforcement and treatment.

The funding bill includes $10 million for the COPS Anti-Heroin Task Force, a vital increase of $3 million from the previous fiscal year.  The Task Force supports competitive grants to law enforcement with high per capita levels of primary treatment admissions for heroin and other opioids, and it has helped some of the hardest-hit communities, including many in Maine.  In September 2015, the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency at Augusta received nearly $400,000 through this program.

The bill also makes an important combined investment of $49 million in Drug Courts and Veterans Treatment Courts.  I have seen first-hand the difference that these courts can make in helping individuals overcome their addictions, avoid imprisonment, and change their lives.

Some of the additional provisions directed toward stopping the heroin and opioid abuse crisis include $12.5 million for the Drug Enforcement Administration’s request for four new heroin enforcement squads and $14 million for prescription drug monitoring to help reduce the diversion of prescription painkillers from legitimate purposes to abuse.

A crucial investment the bill makes is $14 million for the Justice Department’s grant programs that provide prevention and treatment opportunities. The number of Mainers seeking treatment for opiate addiction tripled from 1,115 in 2011 to 3,463 in 2014.  During the last six years, admissions to treatment programs in Maine for heroin or prescription opioid addiction increased by a staggering 90 percent.

This funding measure complements the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, known as CARA, which passed the Senate in March. That bipartisan legislation, which I cosponsored, takes the kind of multifaceted approach needed to address the opioid abuse and heroin epidemic. CARA would authorize several grant programs and task forces to help communities combat substance abuse and overdose deaths and to expand treatment and prevention efforts.  The bill targets substance abuse recovery services for young people in schools and colleges, as well as treatment services for pregnant and postpartum women.  The bill would also provide support for expanding drug takeback programs, an initiative I have long supported and which helped collect more than 350 tons of unneeded medications last year in Maine alone.  These programs provide an important way for individuals to safely and securely dispose of their unused prescription drugs.

Increasingly, heroin is the primary substance involved in addiction.  There is no question that international drug cartels and inner-city drug gangs have targeted Maine as an emerging and lucrative market for heroin.  Federal law enforcement officials have briefed me on the link between the straw purchasing of firearms and the heroin crisis, where out-of-state drug dealers find addicts with clean records to buy guns and then exchange the guns for heroin.  That makes the combination of increased support for both law-enforcement and treatment in this bill so crucial.

Perhaps most tragic is the effect of addiction on the most vulnerable in our society – the babies born to addicts.  In Maine last year, nearly 1,000 babies were born drug and/or alcohol-addicted, a number which represents eight percent of all births in our state.  Last year, I helped champion the Protecting our Infants Act, bipartisan legislation that would help develop a strategy to address research and treatment gaps for opioid abuse among pregnant women.  Our legislation became law in November of 2015.

It is also essential that we increase our efforts to educate teens about the dangers of opioid abuse.  According to a national study in 2013, the percentage of adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 who perceived that using heroin once or twice a week to be a great risk was lower than in previous years.   We must reverse this trend.

The addiction epidemic is sweeping through emergency rooms, jails, and homes here in Maine and throughout the country.  We can stop its spread and push back against this destructive tide with the combination of education, treatment, and law enforcement investments that these bills support.