Ted Bridges, Drug Policy Foundation, [email protected]
This Monday (11/15), the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Youth Violence traveled to the New Castle County police headquarters in New Castle, Delaware to hold a hearing on resurgence of heroin use. Only two senators on the subcommittee were present at the hearing -- Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) and Senator Arlen Specter (R-PE), although Specter departed during the first panel of witnesses leaving Biden to chair the hearing.
In testimony, a New Castle police officer and a paramedic offered anecdotal evidence as to the increasing prevalence of heroin arrests and overdoses in the Delaware area. William R. Nelson, Acting Special agent in Charge of the Philadelphia Field Division of the Drug Enforcement Agency, testified that the Pennsylvania/Delaware region has been flooded with inexpensive and highly pure South American heroin, which is marketed with such street names as "TURBO," READY TO DIE," and "LANDROVER."
Senators Biden and Specter stressed that a greater share of the government's drug control budget must be devoted to demand reduction. "It is long-past due that we devote at least 50% of the resources to the demand side," said Specter.
The Senators' ideas for cutting back demand include reauthorizing and strengthening the drug court program -- a network of state and local special courts that offer non-violent drug offenders an alternative to prison if they participate in a program of coerced abstinence through a combination of treatment, drug testing, punitive sanctions, and case management. To this end, both senators endorsed S.1808, a pending Specter-sponsored bill entitled, "The Drug Court Reauthorization and Improvement Act of 1999."
Biden also called upon Congress to fulfill a commitment it made in 1992 under the Pharmacotherapy Development Act to provide $1 billion over ten years to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Medication Development Program, which researches new drugs that can be used to treat opioid addiction. Funds were authorized for the program by Congress in 1993 and 1995 but were never appropriated.
Witness Dr. Alan Leshner who heads the Medication Development Program was critical of the government's level of support. "In spite of all the rhetoric, we really don't have enough funding for treatment."
Specter, while supportive of the drug court approach, said he was not convinced of the power of medications to treat addiction. He quizzed Dr. Leshner about the Human Genome Project and informed the doctor that he would find better results curing drug addiction from a genetic angle. Specter's lesson in human physiology had no merit, however, according to another researcher from the Medical Development Division of NIDA who asked to remain anonymous. "[The Human Genome Project] is a long way off. Even when it's complete, what can you do for addiction with that information? You would still have to chemically alter the genome for there to be any effect."
Biden outlined other proposals for curbing heroin use in a report entitled, "HEROIN: Increased Use, Deadly Consequences." In the report, Biden endorses the bill S.324, the Drug Addiction Treatment Act of 1999, which is specifically targeted at increasing the availability of an anti-heroin addiction drug known as Buprenorphine. Biden also recommends incentives for private companies to develop opioid addiction medications. He suggests that pharmaceutical companies be allowed to extend their patents on their anti-addiction medications, and that the Food and Drug Administration's approval process be expedited.
By the end, the event began to take on the flavor of a town hall meeting more than a hearing. At one point, Biden asked panel members, "Why the heck won't these kids listen to me?" In response, spirited audience members shouted, "They're right here! Why don't you ask them yourself?" Two recovering heroin addicts from a local methadone clinic were ushered up to the witness table. Said one gaunt-faced youth to Biden: "The reason someone would listen to us and not to you is because we've been there. Yours is just textbook knowledge."