Can the White House’s New Plan End the Heroin Epidemic?

The administration has a different approach to heroin overdose death rates, which have nearly quadrupled over the past decade.
A man injects himself with heroin. (Photo: David Ryder/Reuters)
Aug 19, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

As heroin use continues to rise in the U.S., the White House has taken a surprising approach to handling the deadly drug’s toll by emphasizing treatment over punishment for users. While it’s a marked shift from drug policy of days past, some skeptics say it’s not enough and may reflect continued inequities along the country's racial divide. On Monday, the Office of National Drug Control Policy announced it would spend $2.5 million on a targeted program geared to stemming the abuse of heroin in 15 Northeastern states.

The numbers are staggering: Overdose death rates have nearly quadrupled over the past decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Approximately 45 percent of U.S. heroin users also struggle with prescription painkiller addiction. Experts have observed the relationship between an increase in prescriptions for opioid painkillers and the increase in heroin use: The pills seem to pave the way for the illegal drug.

The response strategy will focus on Appalachia, New England, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. These areas are flagged as some of the hardest hit by heroin trafficking in the U.S.

The funding will go toward pairing drug intelligence officers with public health coordinators, who will work together to identify the drug’s origin and track its distribution, officials announced. Called “public health–public safety partnerships,” the approach is a departure from a strictly punitive response to drug use.

The plan will also supposedly emphasize treatment and recovery for drug users rather than incarceration. First responders will be trained to handle overdoses, including administration of naloxone, which can reverse the effects of opiate overdose.

Some advocates are concerned that the strategy is still too reliant on the criminal justice system.

“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,” said Bill Piper of Drug Policy Alliance, a national policy reform group. Funding used in the designated high-drug-trafficking areas can’t be used to expand drug treatment programs, thanks to a 1998 ban by Congress. That reality may limit the heroin response strategy’s ability to address the issue from a public health perspective.

The CDC’s most recent data on the rise in heroin use notes that “women, the privately insured, and people with higher incomes” are among the groups with the greatest increase in use. Today's heroin users are also predominantly white and suburban. Drug policy experts have noted the contrast in the government’s approach to the current heroin abuse epidemic and its approach to the crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s. While the latter was met with a criminal justice–oriented crackdown on poor communities of color that greatly contributed to the rise in our prison population, the former appears to be receiving a more inventive, more forgiving approach.

“When the perception of the user population is primarily people of color, then the response is to demonize and punish,” Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, told The Marshall Project. “When it's white, then we search for answers.”