Senate Takes First Real Step Toward Combating Heroin Epidemic

WASHINGTON — The Senate took a big step on Monday toward finally addressing heroin and opioid addiction in the U.S.

In an 89 to 0 vote, the upper chamber advanced debate on legislation that would establish an interagency task force to craft best practices for prescribing opioids and grant federal officials the authority to make drug policy prevention-driven rather than punishment-focused. It is scheduled for a final vote later this week.

Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) authored the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2015, which is co-sponsored by 35 senators from both sides of the aisle.

“The stories behind the heroin and prescription drug epidemic are heartbreaking,” Portman wrote Monday in the Washington Examiner. “The numbers are shocking, with more than 100 Americans dying from overdoses every day. Congress can help, and we must act.”

Senators began championing the bill earlier this month, holding press conferences and speaking on the Senate floor about how the heroin and opioid epidemics have devastated people in their states. The shift is a notable change from the messaging that has dominated the war on drugs in previous decades.

“The prescription opioid and heroin epidemic does not discriminate by demographic or socioeconomic status, by age or gender,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said ahead of the vote. “In my home state of Kentucky, drug overdoses continue to outpace the number of fatalities from traffic accidents.”

The bipartisan bill would also provide incentives for states and local communities to pursue prevention and education programs, institute treatment programs that have been successful in the past and encourage first responders to use naloxone to reverse overdoses.

If it passes, the legislation will be one of the few pieces of legislation the Republican-controlled Congress has agreed on in 2016. The ongoing battle over whether President Barack Obama can nominate a replacement for the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in an election year is setting up lawmakers for an even more contentious and challenging few months.