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Heroin epidemic fight gets $5 million nationwide

Drug intelligence officers, health data analysts to team up

(THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

MIAMI – As cheap potent Mexican heroin spreads its misery across the United States, South Florida was included in a national plan to target the outbreak of an epidemic  that has hit Miami-Dade County particularly hard.

For the first time in the war against drugs, a federal government initiative will have teams managing public health and law enforcement, The White House announced Monday.

The $5 million experiment -- initially funded for one year in Florida and 14 other states -- will focus on tracing where heroin is coming from, how and where it is being laced with a deadly additive and who is distributing it to street-level dealers.

The plan is part of an effort to shift the emphasis from punishment of drug users to the treatment of those suffering from the disease of addiction. Law enforcement will focus instead on tracking and disrupting the source of the supply.

GRAPHICS: Data on heroin epidemic

HOW DAVID DIED

From the countryside of New England to the cities of the Midwest, the most deadly epidemic of heroin use in half a century is tearing at the fabric of American life.

Part 1: David McCarthy's story

Part 2: 'The angel of death'

Part 3: Starting with Oxys

Part 4: 'He decided not to be'

Part 5: Enabling and denial

Part 6: Michael's story

Part 7: No more secrets

Nationally, heroin-related overdose deaths nearly doubled from 2011 to 2013, when more than 8,200 people died, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Drug intelligence officers and health policy analysts will collect overdose data to find patterns. Sharing the data will provide intelligence about trafficking trends to street-level law enforcement far more quickly than the current system allows.

"If somebody from Brooklyn is arrested with heroin in Burlington, Vermont, we may not hear about it for months, when that information could allow us to see a trafficking pattern that lets us focus on who to go after," an official familiar with the program said.

CDC DATA: Death rate from overdoses quadruples in past decade

The new hires will work under five pairs of regional coordinators across 15 states. Law enforcement coordinators will use the public health coordinators' data to identify targets for police to pursue across state lines.

PUBLIC HEALTH PROBLEM

Health agencies nationwide believe that the heroin epidemic is also linked to the explosive increase in cases of hepatitis C, a blood infection that can result in liver cancer and other complications.

A regional health coordinator will analyze trends in the overdose data and devise strategies for combating spikes in drug use.

"Our approach needs to be broad and inclusive," a senior White House official said. "Law enforcement is only one part of what really needs to be a comprehensive public health-public safety approach."

The initiative will also train first responders on the use of medication that can reverse opioid overdoses. Supporters are pushing federal authorities to designate some of the money seized from drug dealers for treatment programs.

GRAPHIC: Heroin and the brain: The making of an overdose

In June, Gov. Rick Scott signed overdose-prevention legislation that allows some healthcare professionals to administer Naloxone, which quickly counters the effects of a heroin overdose.

The laws in Florida do not clear the way for people to call for help for an overdosing addict without facing arrest for their own drug use.

WAR AGAINST DRUGS

The Obama administration this year proposed $133 million in new spending to curb over-prescription of opioid painkillers, the drugs that have proved to be the primary gateway to heroin use, and to expand the use of Suboxone and methadone, drugs that are used as more benign substitutes to wean addicts off the powerful urge to return to heroin.

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy hopes that the pairing of public health workers and police will not only reduce crime, but will also save lives in 15 of the nation's 28 high-intensity drug-trafficking areas.

The target includes about 17 percent of U.S. counties and about 60 percent of the population, an official said.

MAP: South Florida among high-intensity drug-trafficking areas

The initiative will allow public health and law enforcement agencies "to see where Fentanyl-laced heroin is turning up, in real time, so we can react," the enforcement official said.

Fentanyl, an opiate that in its legal, prescription form is used to treat post-surgery pain, has been turning up as an additive in the heroin that has caused a growing portion of overdose deaths in recent months.

"Heroin is killing people," the enforcement official said, "and too often, public health goes one way and law enforcement goes the other ... This program is designed not to create any new agency but to bring people together."

The Washington Post reporter Marc Fisher worked on this story. The Associated Press also contributed to this story.

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Follow Washington Post Senior Editor Marc Fisher on Twitter @MFFisher