While it has been an uphill battle convincing federal lawmakers that drug addiction should be considered a health issue rather than a problem dealt with at the hands of law enforcement, congressional forces have finally approved a measure intended to change the way the U.S. handles people strung out on heroin and prescription painkillers.
On Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives put its final approval on a bill called the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), a measure that will allow more low-level drug offenders to be entered into diversion programs rather than get jammed up in the criminal justice system. It also provides for the advancement of a variety of other important programs aimed at reducing opioid abuse and overdose deaths.
The bill is a mutt breed of legislation comprised of several drug-related proposals that managed to garner successful passage in the halls of Congress over the past year. It was designed to chip away at the painkiller epidemic currently sweeping the United States by reducing the number of people sent to jail for drug convictions and making it easier for addicts, even those currently sitting in prison, to gain access to medication-based treatments.
Although President Obama is expected to the sign the bill into law, his administration is concerned that CARA does not come with the necessary funding to make it a functional part of the American way. In fact, while Obama recently proposed spending $1 billion to address the national opioid crisis, this congressional plan doesn’t come anywhere close to that much.
“The administration has consistently said that turning the tide of the prescription opioid and heroin epidemic requires real resources to help those Americans seeking treatment get the care that they need,” the White House said in a statement. “We continue to believe this bill falls far short.”
Aside from the bill potentially eliminating the rate for which drug users are being thrown in cages—setting aside $100 million per year for five years to put drug addicts in treatment rather than jail—perhaps its most important function will be that it allows nurse practitioners and physician assistants to give addicts the craving-curbing drug Suboxone, which was previously only allowed to be prescribed by doctors. CARA also opens up the possibility of more communities getting their hands on Naloxone, a drug that stops the fatal effect of an opioid overdose.
Although this life-saving drug has been making its way into some cities under pilot programs, there is currently not enough access available for the average person hoping to save the life of an addicted family member or friend; this bill gets the drug into the hands of more than just first responders and law enforcement.
“Treatment capacity is really a crisis. There just isn’t enough,” Linda Rosenberg, president of the National Council for Behavioral Health, told NPR. “But what this bill does to address that—it expands the kinds of people who can prescribe medications for addictions. And that’s a very big deal.”
The budget issue, however, is of great concern to supporters of the bill who believe it would be a powerful step forward in the fight against the drug war if it came with the appropriate funding. Advocates stand with the Obama administration in continuing, “to press Republicans” to “provide the funding for treatment that communities need to combat this epidemic.”
“CARA promotes many evidence-based interventions that have the potential to more effectively address opioid and heroin dependence and save lives,” Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs with the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement. “Lawmakers in Congress now must deliver on promises to fully fund CARA if we are to realize its potential.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 500,000 people died between 2000 and 2014 from overdoses of heroin and painkillers. The government’s health agency reports that over half of these deaths were the result of prescription drugs.