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Call to battle Connecticut's heroin epidemic

Published 11:54 am, Thursday, March 20, 2014

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  • U.S. Senator Chris Murphy Photo: Carol Kaliff / The News-Times
    U.S. Senator Chris Murphy Photo: Carol Kaliff

 

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The 5-point plan
Increase funding for addiction treatment beyond the Obama administration's level of $1.8 billion.
Increase federal support for a law enforcement crackdown on heroin
trafficking.
Increase funding to prevent heroin and prescription drug abuse.
Promote community collaboration among social agencies.
Increase availability
of naloxone, a heroin overdose drugs that saves lives.

The impact
Heroin overdose deaths in Connecticut climbed to 257 in 2013, compared to 174 in 2012.
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Connecticut's U.S. senators are calling for more federal money and other assistance to battle a growing heroin epidemic in the state and across the nation.

"It's time for the federal government to partner with local government and do something about it," said U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., referring to a dramatic rise in heroin-related deaths in Connecticut since 2012.

Heroin-overdose deaths in the state climbed to 257 in 2013, compared to 174 in 2012, as the drug's use spread into suburbs and small towns, officials said.

"A lack of funding for treatment and enforcement is a big reason," Murphy said during a news conference Monday at the Alcohol and Drug Recovery Center in Hartford.

Murphy, along with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., on Monday announced a five-point plan to help rein in the spread of heroin that includes increasing the $1.8 billion authorized by the Obama administration for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The senators said they could not yet say how much federal spending should rise, noting they were working on the details of the plan.

The senators proposed increasing federal support for a law-enforcement crackdown on heroin trafficking, increasing funding to prevent heroin and prescription drug abuse, promoting community collaboration among social service agencies and increasing the availability of heroin-overdose drugs that save lives.

Blumenthal said prescription painkillers like oxycodone are often a gateway to heroin, which is now far cheaper. He said a combination of moves by the international cartels that control the flow of heroin and the introduction of fentanyl, a synthetic version of heroin, has sharply reduced the price, Blumenthal said.

"There is a beltway of cheap, highly toxic and highly pure heroin coming into the country and our communities from organized corporate cartels in Colombia and Mexico," Blumenthal said. "These cartels are making billions of dollars at the expense of our lives and health, and we need to crack down hard. It begins with prescription drugs. Cracking down on heroin also means a different attitude toward powerful pain relievers."

Dr. Charles McKay, chief of toxicology at Hartford Hospital, said the mixing of fentanyl and heroin is providing batches far stronger than users may realize, leading to unintended overdoses.

"People on the street are not good chemists. They don't mix things well," McKay said.

Murphy said, "This dramatic increase of heroin use and abuse in Connecticut is unlike anything we've ever seen. Our state has lost hundreds more people to heroin use in the last year, but we're not doing enough to change the way we address this crisis."

The senators threw their support behind a bill before the Connecticut General Assembly that seeks to resolve the fear of being sued if police officers administer naloxone, a heroin antidote that quickly revives a dying patient by reversing the effects of the drug.

Emergency medical personnel now administer naloxone, but health experts believe allowing police officers to also apply it, most likely through a nasal dose, could save more lives because officers are usually the first on the scene.

Hartford Deputy Police Chief Brian Foley said he supports the bill, explaining that heroin has spread far beyond urban areas.

"Hartford is the center of the current heroin problem," Foley said. "But other towns are all involved. We can sit in Frog Hollow (a troubled Hartford neighborhood) and pick off kids from every town."

Foley agreed that many heroin users start with prescription drugs like oxycodone. He said an estimated 40 percent of young heroin users initially obtain painkillers from their parents.

The senators said New York City and New Jersey are the main entry points in the Northeast for heroin.

"The New England supply chain begins in New Jersey and New York City and runs through Connecticut," Murphy said.