They might not be able to get together on issues like gun control, but it seems members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have found something they can jointly back. Last night (July 13), the Senate voted 92 to 2 to pass the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), which significantly strengthens opioid addiction prevention, treatment and recovery initiatives across the nation. The House of Representatives passed a version of the bill by a margin of 407 to 5 last week, making it clear that Congress thinks the nation’s heroin and other opioid addiction crisis should be treated as a public health emergency.

CARA puts in place some key strategies:

  • The expansion of diversion programs that keeps low-level drug offenders out of jail and instead puts them into treatment
     
  • Increased use of medication-assisted treatment to help users—including those previously jailed—kick their addiction
     
  • Increased availability of a life saving drug that reduces opioid overdoses

 

Some have noted that these measures are in stark contrast to the ones put into place when crack consumed Black families in the 1980s. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that heroin use increased 114 percent among White Americans from 2002 to 2013, and deaths from overdose has climbed 286 percent over that same period. In fact, in 2014, opioids were to blame for 61 percent of all drug overdoses in the United States, with about nine and 10 times as many White users (37,945 people) dying as Blacks (4,323) and Latinos (3,504), respectively.

Crack killed thousands of Black people via overdose and violent crime. The government reacted with the “war on drugs,” a program that criminalized drug use and heavily contributed to the wave of mass incarceration that still devastates millions of Black lives. The laws passed back then bore no resemblance to CARA; the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 introduced mandatory minimum sentences that penalized crack users at rates that were astronomically higher than abusers of the more expensive powdered cocaine that was favored by more affluent Whites.

“I think it was pretty clear that our response during the crack cocaine epidemic was largely a criminal justice response,” Dr. Andrew Kolodny, executive director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, told Modern Healthcare. “Whenever you hear people talking about our opioid crisis, within the first few minutes you hear someone say something to the effect that we can’t arrest our way out of this problem.”

President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill soon. While the law currently lacks federal funding, Congressional leadership has promised to attach money to it via the body’s regular vote on appropriations.