The Government Is Fighting the U.S. Heroin Epidemic in 94 Million Ways (Video)

The recent death of former first lady Nancy Reagan has brought conversations about the so-called “War on Drugs” back into the fray. Considered by most to have been a complete and utter failure, the war was first initiated by the Nixon administration, but was fortified by not only President Reagan, but also his wife. The poster-woman for the ubiquitous “Just Say No” campaign, Mrs. Reagan has been criticized harshly for her contributions to her husband’s initiatives in the war on drugs, which included a massive increase in incarceration rates, more resources siphoned to the Department of Justice rather than health agencies, and mandatory minimum drug laws. Those laws were responsible for thousands of low-level drug offenders being quite literally stuffed into United States prisons, a tragic cycle that continues to affect millions of Americans today. However it’s that second initiative – the focus on punishment over rehabilitation – that is the underpinning for a huge announcement from the Department of Health and Human Services last week. It announced on March 11 that $94 million will be funneled into hundreds of health centers around the country in an effort to treat and rehabilitate heroin addicts.

In an announcement posted to its website, HHS outlined its reasoning for opting to devote so much money to Affordable Care Act funding, calling it an effort to “improve and expand the delivery of substance abuse services in health centers, with a specific focus on treatment of opioid use disorders in underserved populations.” This decision by the government stands in stark contrast to the “just say no” campaign and the policies enacted in the guise of a “War on Drugs,” as it not only acknowledges but also directly addresses the fact that drug addiction is a health issue, and not a criminal justice issue. Furthermore, the $94 million will be funneled towards the treatment of those addicted not only to street drugs like heroin, but doctor-prescribed (and abused) medications like opioids, particularly those meant to serve as pain relievers. According to HHS, “[a]pproximately 4.5 million people in the United States were non-medical prescription pain reliever users in 2013, and an estimated 289,000 were current heroin users,” a number which has likely increased in the years since. Between 2012 and 2013 alone,  “deaths related to heroin increased 39 percent,” a staggering statistic which speaks to the tragic flaws in the American way of thinking about addiction treatment.

Far from being cart blanche for the treatment centers receiving the government funding, the $94 million will be used in part to increase the number of patients screened for substance use disorders and connected to treatment, increase the number of patients with access to [medication-assisted treatment] for opioid use and other substance use disorder treatment, and provide training and educational resources to help health professionals make informed prescribing decisions.” This bold response to the growing crisis in the country was in large part, according to HHS, spurred on by President Obama, who “has made addressing the prescription opioid abuse and heroin epidemic a top priority and issued a Presidential Memorandum last year on improving access to medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid use disorders.” And, while all of these measures are sure to help in the battle against addiction, there are still many, many Americans caught up in the throes of heroin’s grasp right now, at this very moment. ABC News has taken that battle on with some extensive reporting with its “Breaking Point: Heroin in America” program, which aired last week.

While for many being addicted to heroin seems like an extreme scenario to imagine, the overuse of prescription pain medication is likely far more relatable. This brings up one of many questions involving culpability: are the doctors prescribing medication far too generously to blame? What about the pharmaceutical industry, which gives doctors a financial incentive to prescribe their medications? What about the politicians who vote on measures that limit access to drug treatment but fund expansions of the prison system? When does “just say no” become “saying no is not enough”?

Related: The War On Drugs Failed. Now It’s a War For Recovery (Audio)