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Congress Moves To Tackle Heroin, Prescription Drug Epidemic


The abuse of heroin and prescription drugs is an issue that's not only getting the attention of politicians who are campaigning. It's also led to a rare moment of bipartisan cohesion in Congress. NPR's Ailsa Chang reports that the Senate Judiciary Committee has zeroed in on how lawmakers might be able to respond.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: There are few problems Congress has to deal with that cut so indiscriminately across income levels, age groups, race and state lines, which is why the political will to act now cuts across party lines. Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois says drug abuse in this country has a new face.


DICK DURBIN: The fact that this is no longer an inner-city minority problem but an American problem, predominantly a white American problem, I think creates a political force that might see this to the right conclusion.

CHANG: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that roughly 129 Americans died from a drug overdose every day in 2014. Two-thirds of those deaths involved heroin or opioids. The numbers are staggering and heartbreaking, as are the individual stories that have been streaming into lawmakers offices and before the panel today.


TONDA DARE: We have to put a face to this. We have to help these kids.

CHANG: Tonda DaRe of Carrollton, Ohio, watched her 21-year-old daughter die of an accidental heroin overdose in 2012. She remembers trying desperately to give her CPR next to the sink.


DARE: The sound of my air going into her lungs - that crackling and popping that I still hear in my nightmares...

CHANG: Those nightmares, DeRe says, could become a reality for any parent who gives her child as little as $20. That's because heroin's so cheap and so plentiful on the street now. And Republicans like Chuck Grassley of Iowa are blaming that supply problem largely on the president's immigration policies. Here he is talking to Michael Botticelli, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.


CHUCK GRASSLEY: Isn't it at least part of the answer to this epidemic securing the border for Mexican cartels? And what can we do about that part of the problem?

MICHAEL BOTTICELLI: Sure. Thank you, Senator. Let me start out by saying I agree with many of the comments here today that focusing on supply reduction has to be part of our comprehensive response.

CHANG: But that comprehensive response will also have to address addiction prevention, recovery and education efforts. Supply from Mexico just one part of the crisis. Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin says what has changed drastically in the last couple decades is our attitude about painkillers.


PETER SHUMLIN: What has changed is that we simply pass out painkillers like candy in America, and we're unwilling to have that conversation.

CHANG: Since the 1990s, doctors have been prescribing drugs like oxycodone in rising amounts. Shumlin recalls meeting a reporter once who just had surgery.


SHUMLIN: I said, how many did you get? She said, what do you mean? I said, how many oxies did you get? She said 80. I said, good. I said, how many did you take? She said, half of one. So there's 79-and-a-half left behind.

CHANG: And those opioids left behind too often become the gateway to heroin abuse. So now a bipartisan group of senators is pushing the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. It'll provide new resources for treatment and education programs and supply more of an emergency drug that first-responders can use to treat overdoses. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.