Attacking the problem at the source
There's no upside to drug addiction. But at least the inter-related plagues of prescription drug and heroin addiction add some badly needed perspective to the matter - that addiction is a public health crisis rather than a law enforcement matter alone.
Historically, politicians have reacted to the drug addiction problem mostly on the enforcement side - appropriating more money for interdiction and establishing long mandatory sentences.
The jails have filled while addiction has persisted, at massive costs to the public treasury and individual lives.
Last week Sen. Bob Casey and local law enforcement leaders promoted a Senate bill designed to attack prescription drug addiction at the source rather than after the fact.
Prescription drug abuse is a huge problem by itself, but it also is a gateway to heroin addiction. Abusers of opiate painkillers like Vicodin, OxyContin and oxycodone - prescription drugs - often turn to heroin, which generally is less expensive than prescription drugs and easier to obtain.
Dr. Jason Jerry, an addiction specialist at the Cleveland Clinic's Alcohol and Drug Recovery Center, recently told The New York Times that half of the 200 or so heroin addicts the clinic sees every month started on prescription opiates.
Generally, according to government statistics cited by Mr. Casey, someone hooked on prescription opiates is 19 times more likely than a non-addict to use heroin. It's also more dangerous. Prescription drugs come in precise doses with predictable effects. As demonstrated by 22 deaths in Pennsylvania resulting from use of tainted heroin, in January alone, addicts never really know what they're buying. The problem is acute in Pennsylvania, which has the third highest rate of heroin abuse in the country, and the 14th highest drug overdose mortality rate in the United States
The Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 2013 focuses on abuse of prescription opiates and, therefore, on closing a principal gateway to heroin addiction.
It would require access by prescribing medical professionals and pharmacists, across state lines, to prescription drug monitoring programs operated by states. That would make it harder to obtain multiple prescriptions from multiple doctors and pharmacies.
The bill also would establish a national opioid death registry to better track the problem. And it would fund public education programs about the dangers of heroin addiction, among other steps.
But it's the approach that counts most - attacking addiction at the development stage rather than through criminal investigation later.
Congress should pass the bill.