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opinion | William J. Bennett and John P. Walters

Bring back the war on drugs

Cathy Fennelly’s son, Paul, fatally overdosed earlier this year from fentanyl-laced heroin. At a press conference last month to announce proposed legislation making fentanyl trafficking a crime, Fennelly held up the death certificate for her son.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

America is in the midst of a heroin crisis, and the growing epidemic may soon surpass the crack and cocaine overdose deaths of the 1980s and 1990s. Shockingly, we seem powerless to do what we did back then — attack the supply.

Fecklessness regarding heroin has fatal consequences. The death rate from heroin overdoses doubled from 2010 to 2013; according to the Centers for Disease Control, 8,200 died in 2013. In the Northeast, the problem has been acute. Heroin and other drugs in New Hampshire now kill more people than traffic accidents.

But we are not helpless. The heroin epidemic is inflicted upon us by criminal acts that produce an abundant supply of inexpensive drugs. Stopping these criminal acts will stop the epidemic.

The Obama administration refuses to do this, insisting that overdose medication and treatment for heroin users and addicts are sufficient.


Medication to revive dying addicts will not prevent the explosion of new heroin users, nor will it get addicts truly clean and sober. Emergency triage doesn’t immobilize the plague or prevent its spread. And promising Obamacare insurance coverage does not necessarily lead to treatment — most families know that denial and resistance to treatment is part of the pathology of addiction.

Facing a cholera epidemic from bad water, we would not simply give the sick antibiotics. The number of victims would increase, including those we just treated. Likewise, administering antidotes is not a strategy unless we address the underlying contaminants causing the disease. In the case at hand, that cause is the growing supply of cheap, potent heroin.

For 25 years before President Obama, US policy confronted drug addiction with effective public health measures, emphasizing education, prevention, and treatment and, crucially, programs to reduce production, interdict the drugs, and lead international partnerships to destroy drug cartels. It worked.

Yet President Obama refuses to attack supply. He has not increased military and law enforcement coverage at the border to stop heroin from Mexico — presumably because this might be seen as anti-immigrant. Further, Obama has failed to target heroin distribution throughout the United States; he said he opposes a war on drugs because it leads to “mass incarceration” — a deadly falsehood.


Worse, Obama has tacitly allowed legalized marijuana to spread drug use on a widening scale, undermining prevention and treatment. Now drug gangs flourish in a legalized-drug environment, spreading addiction throughout America.

Meanwhile heroin production is surging in Mexico, in a more pure and potent form than ever. And the world’s greatest opium producer, Afghanistan, supplies most heroin found in Canada and is poised to enter our communities as well.

Some claim the crucial cause of heroin overdoses is prior misuse of prescription opiate medications. When these pills become scarce and expensive, they argue, opiate abusers turn to heroin.

This is not entirely wrong, but it is an inadequate explanation of the present crisis. The CDC notes that less than 4 percent of opiate misusers initiate heroin within five years, and points to the impact of heroin supply. There can be no crossover from opiates to heroin without a ready supply of heroin. The crucial answer to this crisis is interrupting the abundant supply of cheap, potent heroin.

As death and addiction spread, who will speak truthfully about this epidemic? President Obama has not, but many Republicans have also downplayed the danger of drugs and the importance of law enforcement. Crime- and drug-ravaged communities are crying out for leadership. Who will answer them?

William J. Bennett is host of “Morning in America’’ and former director of drug control policy for President George H.W. Bush. John P. Walters is chief operating officer at the Hudson Institute and former director of drug control policy for President George W. Bush.



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