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U.S. Senate passes bill fighting heroin, opioid abuse and addiction

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate passed a bill Thursday aimed at heroin and opiate addiction that stands to make an impact in the Red River Valley and around the country.

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate passed a bill Thursday aimed at heroin and opiate addiction that stands to make an impact in the Red River Valley and around the country.

Senators voted 94-1 in favor of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, a bill that battles drug addiction on multiple fronts and comes on the heels of what Senate members characterize alternately as a drug "pandemic" and "epidemic" sweeping the country.

Though the bill still requires a vote from the House and President Barack Obama's signature for approval, it makes a number of federal policy changes and opens the door for nearly $78 million in funding to fight heroin and opioid problems that lawmakers will have the chance to allocate in coming months.

"Anyone who thinks that we don't have a problem with drug abuse -- and major drug abuse -- in our state is wrong," said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. She said the legislation has become particularly pertinent in the state within the last several years as an oil and gas boom has brought more money and a higher population to the area, opening a drug market as well as the necessity for legislation. Drug abuse has also become more common throughout the country.

Grand Forks Police Det. Dave Buzzo said the problem is present in his jurisdiction, mentioning in particular some of the problems with the prescription drug fentanyl that claimed the lives of local residents.

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"We certainly have an issue in town," he said. "In my opinion, one incident is too much. Anytime that drugs show up in a community like this -- opiates have caused the death of several people in town now, and that's unacceptable. It's certainly a problem."

The bill itself has a number of measures that don't require federal spending, such as an amendment from Heitkamp that expands the jurisdiction of U.S. prosecutors to help them pursue cases of drug trafficking that involve persons outside the country -- part of what Heitkamp said is an important part of the "supply-side" solution to the problem.

But the bill also tackles a number of issues on the other side of the equation, shifting focus toward confronting the matter as a public health concern in which treatment, not just incarceration, increasingly becomes a tool to combat the issue.

And there's also the matter of funding. Some budget lines, like providing law enforcement with more access to drugs that can reverse the effects of an overdose at the scene of an emergency, need funding to work. The Senate bill has authorized nearly $78 million for those kinds of programs, though that money still has to be awarded through an appropriations process.

Both senators in North Dakota and in Minnesota voted for the measure. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., called the problem an "epidemic" in the state and around the nation. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., agreed.

"Four out of five heroin users get their start these days from prescription drugs," she said on the Senate floor earlier this month. "When I was growing up, when we saw heroin addicts on the corner or when I was a prosecutor for years, we never had those kinds of statistics. People got hooked on heroin because they got hooked on heroin."

All but one senator, Republican Benjamin Sasse of Nebraska, voted for the bill.

"This legislation will help to prevent drug addiction and provide law enforcement with tools to combat drug crime in our communities," Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said in a statement. "Opioid and heroin addiction is a scourge that ruins lives and crushes the spirit, and this legislation is a potent weapon in the fight against it."

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