Congress Finally Gives A Damn About Heroin Addiction

A remarkable week in Washington highlighted a sea change in how Congress views addiction.

WASHINGTON -- Suddenly, heroin is the hottest political issue in Washington, but it doesn't sound anything like your grandfather's war on drugs.

Over the past few years, Capitol Hill has gradually toned down its martial rhetoric around drugs, even if it hasn't found the will to actually pass any legislation. Last week, however, the shift in rhetoric hit a new gear, with lawmakers in the unusual position of trying to outflank each other -- in Congress and on the campaign trail -- over just how passionate they are about dealing with the heroin crisis as a public health issue.

There was a remarkable focus on heroin all week. More than a dozen senators -- including the top leaders in each party -- brought up the topic in discussions on the Senate floor and in committee rooms. It even surfaced repeatedly when intelligence officials briefed lawmakers on the threats facing the United States in 2016, and included opioids.

It's a dramatic shift for a slow-to-change Congress, which for decades beat a get-tough-on-crime drum when it came to drugs. The most significant legislative signal of change came in the advancement of a bill that would formally authorize the federal government to take a less prosecutorial approach to addiction.

The bill, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, sponsored by Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) passed the Judiciary Committee. It essentially would authorize federal officials to change drug strategy from punishment to prevention, combined with a reform of the broken treatment industry.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) deemed the bipartisan effort of sufficient import that he touted it on the Senate floor. Portman also went to the floor to say that the crisis was "not a political issue."

On Thursday, Portman lauded the bill's progress. “When I am back home talking about this, it’s hard for me to find a group I’m meeting with that doesn’t bring this up," he said, echoing what presidential candidates in both parties have said about their meetings with voters.

In perhaps the surest sign that opioids have arrived as a potent topic, the issue quickly turned political.

After President Barack Obama ad-libbed a reference to the heroin crisis at the top of his recent State of the Union address, Portman told HuffPost he hoped the White House would back his legislation. White House aides have said privately that Obama plans to make heroin a major priority in 2016.

Passing a bill that aligns with a White House effort would make a neat bipartisan accomplishment for a vulnerable GOP senator in a swing state, making it all the harder for Democrats to retake the upper chamber. Portman's office has promoted his work aggressively, and on Friday touted the support of the Fraternal Order of Police.

But even as the bill advanced in the Judiciary Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the party's campaign arm, perceived the potential boost for Portman and blasted him for previously having voted against funding for heroin treatment.

And Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), another co-sponsor of the Portman-Whitehouse bill, got in on the action. He also focused on the funding issue, since the bill has no money attached.

Schumer, the presumptive Democratic leader in the next Congress, gathered colleagues for a press conference to declare the bill was not nearly good enough, and that Democrats would go further, pushing a $600 million emergency funding bill written by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). It would channel those resources to the heroin epidemic.

Schumer suggested Republicans and Portman were only paying lip service to the problem.

"We're challenging our friends on the other side of the aisle, when it comes to opioid addiction, not to just talk the talk, but walk the walk. They have to put their money where their mouth and pass emergency funding," Schumer said. "To just pass [the bill] with nothing else will bring no relief. And we are going to hold our colleagues' feet to the fire to do something real."

To make his point more broadly political and critical of Republicans, Schumer tied it to the prevailing push among conservatives to limit government, accusing the GOP failing to put resources into other crises, including combating the spread of the Zika virus and helping Flint, Michigan, with its water crisis.

"This seems to be a new pattern among our Republican colleagues that's give a lot of speeches, talk the talk, but don't do anything real," Schumer said. "Pass bills with authorizations, put the names of senators who are up for re-election on them, but don't put the money in.

"Is the private sector going to solve the fight against opioids? No. Is the private sector going to pay for Zika to be fought? No. Is the private sector going to change the pipes in Flint? No," Schumer added. "You need a strong, smart, but lean government to do this. And the idea that government is always the root of the problem leads to inaction."

While the opioid discussion got political, almost none of it featured the old get-tough-on-crime rhetoric that used to characterize drug debates.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a conservative Democrat who used to favor the punitive approach, has become perhaps the most outspoken proponent in the Senate for dealing with addiction in a more humane fashion.

He has taken to reading the letters of addicts' relatives on the Senate floor, and summed up the shift at Schumer's event.

"We've been treating this as a crime," Manchin said. "I'm as guilty as anybody else. I was governor of my state, I've been a legislator in my state, and my goodness, when this epidemic started hitting and people were fooling with these drugs, we thought it was a crime. We'd throw 'em in jail. Well, we know it's an illness."

Not all the discussion abandoned Washington's war on drugs old-think. When heroin abuse surfaced repeatedly in Senate hearings on Wednesday about the threats faced by the United States, only some of the talk was about helping people.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and FBI Director James Comey were more focused on old-school interdiction, with Comey describing a "tidal wave" of powerful drugs sweeping into the country.

"A tidal wave of death, is what we're talking about," said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine).

That's familiar scary talk. The difference, now, is that such words may actually be joined by laws that ease suffering, not just jail people. And the political battles signaled that if they are not, both parties believe a price could be paid at the polls in November.

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