White House Announces Program to Combat Rise in Heroin Deaths

Image: Vermont Battles With Deadly Heroin Epidemic
ST. JOHNSBURY, VT - FEBRUARY 06: Drugs are prepared to shoot intravenously by a user addicted to heroin on February 6, 2014 in St. Johnsbury Vermont. Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin recently devoted his entire State of the State speech to the scourge of heroin. Heroin and other opiates have begun to devastate many communities in the Northeast and Midwest leading to a surge in fatal overdoses in a number of states. As prescription painkillers, such as the synthetic opiate OxyContin, become increasingly expensive and regulated, more and more Americans are turning to heroin to fight pain or to get high. Heroin, which has experienced a surge in production in places such as Afghanistan and parts of Central America, has a relatively inexpensive street price and provides a more powerful affect on the user. New York City police are currently investigating the death of the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman who was found dead last Sunday with a needle in his arm. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
SUBSCRIBE
By Halimah Abdullah and Ron Allen

In response to a rise nationally in fatal heroin overdoses, the White House on Monday announced a plan aimed at emphasizing treatment rather than prosecution of addicts.

The program would initially be funded for $2.5 million by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy through five “High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas” and cover 15 states, administration officials said Monday.

The plan would focus on tracing the sources of heroin, where a deadly opiate additive blamed for a rising share of recent overdose deaths is being added. The plan also pairs law enforcement officials with public health workers in an effort to address the causes of the problem.

"It's also something that's very much on the president's radar," Eric Schultz, White House deputy press secretary told NBC News. "This is a pretty severe threat that we face and so this program is an unprecedented partnership with both law enforcement and public health officials to really get at the root of it."

Administration officials told NBC News the office of drug policy has been tracking and working to address the "sharp increase in heroin use in trafficking and abuse over the past few years". Law enforcement suggested the partnership with public health officials as a way of improving communication and identifying "potential abusers early on in the process and really focus on prevention and treatment," Schultz said.

The initiative came in reaction to that sharp increase in heroin use and deaths, particularly in New England and other Northeastern states, which will be covered in the plan.

“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,” Michael Botticelli, director of National Drug Control Policy said in a statement on Monday.

Heroin overdose deaths in the United States nearly quadrupled between 2002 and 2013, fueled by lower costs as well as increased abuse of prescription opiate painkillers, U.S. health officials said in July.

Under the White House program, 15 drug intelligence officers and 15 health policy analysts will collect data on overdoses and trends in heroin trafficking for distribution to local law enforcement, the Post reported. It added that the plan would also train first responders about how to use medication that can reverse overdoses.

“This 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’,” Botticelli said in a statement.

Reuters contributed.