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Better laws needed in heroin fight

Heroin seized from a false compartment inside a

Heroin seized from a false compartment inside a truck bound for Hauppauge is displayed during a news conference at a Drug Enforcement Administration location in Manhattan on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2014. Credit: Charles Eckert

Lawmakers nationally and locally are swinging into action to face a crisis that’s terrifying constituents: the skyrocketing number of deaths from addictions to heroin and prescription painkillers.

Nationally, 28,647 deaths were linked to opiates in 2014, and that number gave the drugs a grisly honor: opiate overdoses have overtaken car accidents to become the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. And on Long Island the numbers are worse per capita than the national tallies. In 2015, 442 people in Nassau and Suffolk died of opiate overdoses, a rate about two-thirds higher than the national average.

But what exactly can lawmakers do to combat the problem? A lot. There are no quick or easy fixes to prevent addiction or to guarantee recovery from it, but stronger policies would help. As deadlines for legislative sessions in Washington and Albany approach, pressure for better laws is building.

And so is pressure to stymie better laws, in some cases. Drug manufacturers don’t want to see pill sales curtailed. Physicians don’t want new education requirements or mandated changes in how they prescribe drugs or talk to patients about them. Insurance companies don’t want to pay more for inpatient addiction treatment or replacement drugs that make it easier for addicts to get clean. And defense attorneys don’t want to see harsher penalties for drug dealers. But these are exactly the things that must happen to get this epidemic under control.

In Washington, the House of Representatives last week passed a bipartisan set of 18 bills that addressed drug trafficking, increased treatment, and protecting addicted minors and veterans. But before they mean anything, those bills must be reconciled with omnibus legislation the Senate approved in March, and funding will have to be provided.

Even then much of the legislation mandates changes at the state level, where most of the crucial policies are controlled.

In New York, opiate task forces in the Senate and Assembly have wrapped up, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s task force is set to make recommendations early next month, for legislation that must be passed by the session’s end on June 16. The early battle lines are being drawn by bills the Senate passed last week and the pleas of families and treatment providers all too familiar with the problems.

Among the best proposed measures is one that would make it easier to hold recent overdose victims for treatment against their will. Another big step would be limiting an initial opiate painkiller prescription for acute pain to a five-day supply, keeping a huge volume of unneeded pain medicine out of cabinets and off the streets. More continuing education for doctors and addiction counselors is crucial. Stiffer penalties for serious dealers are a must. And bigger, better anti-heroin education programs in schools have to be mandated, because opiate addiction is so hard to break that preventing it first is the most important step.

A big piece of getting the addiction crisis under control is building the legal and societal framework that’s needed to combat it. That’s the part lawmakers have to get right, right now.

— The editorial board