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White House announces push to combat growing heroin epidemic

The White House is zeroing in on the growing heroin epidemic, announcing federal funding Monday to combat use of the drug with a focus on both public health and safety.

About $2.5 million from President Obama's anti-drug programs will target heroin abuse in New England, Appalachia and East Coast cities, and $1.3 million will go to fight trafficking on the border with Mexico, drug czar Michael Botticelli said.

Public health coordinators will monitor heroin use and issue warnings regarding dangerous batches of the drug. Public safety coordinators will work with law enforcement to stem illegal imports.

Botticelli emphasized the benefits that would come from cooperation between public health officials and law enforcement.

“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.

Heroin addiction has been an especially intractable problem in the United States, health professionals say. The path to heroin addiction and overdoses can begin when patients are legally prescribed drugs containing opium, said Dr. Walter Ling, professor of psychiatry and founding director of the Integrated Substance Abuse Program at UCLA.

The large numbers of prescriptions created “fertile ground for a heroin epidemic,” said Keith Humphreys, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford Medical School.

“Youngsters begin to use them and get them from their grandma’s medicine cabinet because they’re available," Ling added.

“Once they get hooked they find out it’s very expensive to get these medicines and it’s much cheaper on the street. … That leads to street heroin abuse, which leads to the increase in opium overdoses,” Ling said.

Botticelli also said that cheap heroin with additives had been linked to the increase in abuse of the drug.

But while approving the direction and aims of the program, some questioned whether enough was being spent to contain the fourfold increase in fatal heroin overdoses nationwide in the last 13 years.

"$2.5 million will not change the world,” Humphreys said. “We need to do really bold stuff, not nibbling at the edges.”

Heroin addiction has also been an issue on the 2016 campaign trail, where voters have regaled candidates with stories of addiction and abuse that upended their lives or the lives of loved ones. The prevalence of heroin overdoses in the early primary state of New Hampshire has helped catapult the issue onto candidates’ agendas.

Fifty people have fatally overdosed on heroin this year in Manchester, New Hampshire’s largest city with a population of 110,000.

Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton held a forum on the subject in New Hampshire this month to listen to voters’ concerns.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) generally approved of the administration’s approach.

“One of the most salient points I have learned from studying prescription drug and heroin abuse is that multi-jurisdictional and multi-agency law enforcement efforts … are crucial to our success. I have no doubt that this new funding will enhance law enforcement’s ability to fight heroin in some of the areas, such as Kentucky, that have seen communities and families ravaged because of this drug,” McConnell said.

Botticelli said funding came from Obama administration reserves “to deal with pressing issues."

Los Angeles County has experienced a nearly 60% increase in heroin overdose deaths since 2012, according to data from the L.A. coroner, but it was not included in the new program.

@tomanmiller

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