Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 6, 2016

Hoffman Overdose Prompts Congressional Scrutiny of Heroin Usage Spike

Harry Reid

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A high-profile overdose and the spike in heroin-related addiction has caught the attention of Congress. And now, lawmakers may crack down.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Tuesday called heroin an affliction on the nation, and Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy said he plans to hold a hearing that focuses on law enforcement, because the drug has become an increasing problem in his home state of Vermont.

“The headlines over the last couple of days have been the death of — in my opinion — one of the great actors of our time, Philip Seymour Hoffman,” Reid said. “He died of a drug overdose of heroin.”

The Nevada Democrat made a point to discuss the topic while Leahy was on the floor, given the rise of heroin usage in the Green Mountain State. Reid noted that Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin has called the issue a crisis that spreads addiction and crime.

“The governor of Vermont was very, very visionary in the directing of his State of the State remarks this year to the scourge that is sweeping the nation,” Reid said.

“In every corner of our state, heroin and opiate drug addiction threatens us. It threatens the safety that has always blessed our state,” Shumlin said in his January address. “It is a crisis bubbling just beneath the surface that may be invisible to many, but is already highly visible to law enforcement, medical personnel, social service and addiction treatment providers, and too many Vermont families. It requires all of us to take action before the quality of life that we cherish so much is compromised.”

Drug Enforcement Administration statistics show that use of the drug has been on the rise everywhere.

“The availability of heroin continued to increase in 2012, likely due to high levels of heroin production in Mexico and Mexican traffickers expanding into white powder heroin markets in the eastern and midwest United States,” according to DEA’s 2013 National Drug Threat Assessment. “Further, some metropolitan areas saw a recent increase in heroin overdose deaths. Law enforcement and treatment officials throughout the country are also reporting that many prescription opioid users have turned to heroin as a cheaper and/or more easily obtained alternative to prescription drugs.”

Other senators applauded Leahy’s push for attention.

“We’re feeling the same thing in our state, that heroin is becoming a bigger and bigger problem,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. “I think it’s definitely worth looking at.”

Paul, who leans libertarian, stopped short of calling for a government solution. Paul teamed up with Leahy in the past to give judges discretion over mandatory minimum laws, including for drug crimes.

Leahy held a hearing in September on how to bridge the gap between federal and state marijuana laws. Vermont is one of a growing number of states that has decriminalized marijuana. But even as lawmakers are changing their minds on medical marijuana with the rise of state-level law changes, senators aren’t sure — and they know the drugs are different.

Reid said he doesn’t see the trend toward decriminalizing marijuana on the state level as a contradiction to seeking to deter heroin addiction at the federal level.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., a member of the Judiciary Committee who is sympathetic to medical marijuana, agreed with Reid’s characterization of heroin and marijuana.

“They are two different drugs with two different risks and concerns,” Whitehouse said. “The injectable nature of heroin and the astonishingly hard grip of addiction to it put it in a different category.”

At a hearing in the House on Tuesday, Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., noted that no one ever died from a marijuana overdose and questioned whether it should be considered in the same category as harder drugs such as heroin.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, who is ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, said he wants a definitive answer to the question “that hasn’t been answered.”

“Is marijuana a gateway to harder drugs?” Grassley asked. “It is very important that we get that answer before we do anything” on relaxing the federal drug laws.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., thinks it is.

“I still believe that marijuana is a gateway drug, I know that’s old-fashioned, I know that it’s certainly no longer popular to believe that any more, old fossils like me have held that view for a long time,” McCain said. “But the people of my state voted and a sort of legalization passed, so I have to support it; that’s the will of the people. [But] it doesn’t change my personal opinion.”

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