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New White House drug program to help combat ‘national crisis’

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A missing link in the countrywide fight against the rise of heroin abuse is intelligence sharing between law enforcement and public health officials, according to Northeastern University drug policy expert Leo Beletsky.

To close that link, the White House on Monday announced a new program that will pair those two entities in order to get a better—and faster—handle on the crisis. This is part of a broader shift in focus that emphasizes treatment rather than incarceration.

“The first step to facing any problem is understanding the scope, and that is what the effort announced today helps to tackle,” said Beletsky, an associate professor who holds joint appointments in the School of Law and Bouvé College of Health Sciences. “It is really focused on getting accurate information in place, which is absolutely necessary.”

Leo Beletsky

Assistant professor Leo Beletsky. Photo by Brooks Canaday/for Northeastern University

Beletsky was the lead author on a paper published last month that examined opportunities to curb 0pioid overdose among individuals newly released from prison.

White House responds

Under the program, a public health coordinator and public safety coordinator will be hired in 15 states—including all six New England states—where addiction is a particularly big problem, to determine where heroin use is most prevalent, where it is coming from, and to track especially dangerous trends.

“This a welcomed development,” Beletsky said. “Traditionally, the two sectors have been collecting information in their own way and often doing it with different metrics. This program is focused on aligning this intelligence, sharing it, and using it to inform timely action.”

Closer to home

The police chief in the coastal town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, in June shifted his department’s response to drug dependence, announcing that anyone who comes to the police station asking for help to battle addiction will get it, rather than face arrest.

“For many years, it has been primarily advocates and academics who have been drumming the drum for  more treatment resources, but once you start having a police chief say ‘There is no place for us to refer people,’ that is a very different channel for the information to be distributed,” Beletsky said.

While he praised Gloucester’s program, he also noted that addressing addiction goes well beyond drug treatment programs. In most cases, there are more complex issues at the root of an addiction, such as mental health problems, untreated pain and other health issues, as well as broader problems like unemployment and lack of access to housing.

“All those issues play a role in why people not only turn to drugs in the first place, but also allow their addiction to take hold of their lives,” Beletsky said. “There is not a quick, one-size-fits-all solution.”

‘This is a real national crisis’

In the past decade deaths related to heroin use have quadrupled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2013 alone, more than 8,200 people in the U.S. died of heroin overdoses.

Last week presidential candidate Hillary Clinton held a substance abuse forum in Keene, New Hampshire, stating that stakeholders need to renew their focus on how best to address the problem. Beletsky, for his part, said that he’s surprised more presidential candidates aren’t discussing this topic.

“This is a real national crisis,” Beletsky noted. “I am surprised it hasn’t been made more of an issue already. I can only hope we hear from more presidential candidates on what they would do to address it.”

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