[BREAKING --] Leahy: Key Panel Thursday Advances Bill To Set Up New Federal Agency Anti-Heroin Task Force And Fund New Anti-Heroin Grant Program For State Task Forces

. . . Unprecedented New Focus On Heroin And Opioid Addiction In Annual Budget Bill For Federal Law Enforcement Agencies . . . Initiatives Are Among Leahy’s Top Priorities In Applying Lessons From March 17 Field Hearing In Vermont

The Senate Appropriations Committee Thursday approved a new anti-heroin grant program for state-based drug task forces and directs the Justice Department to produce an interagency action plan at the federal level.

The unprecedented steps targeting the sharp rise of heroin and opioid addiction in New England states like Vermont and in communities across the nation reflect top priorities of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) in the annual Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill.  They draw on testimony presented at Leahy’s March 17 Judiciary Committee field hearing in Rutland, Vt., on the scourge of heroin and opioid addiction.  Leahy is the most senior member of the Appropriations Committee and is the ranking majority member of the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Subcommittee, which produced the bill, and which the full Appropriations Committee approved Thursday unanimously.  He worked with panel chair Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and other committee members to include the initiatives.

Leahy said, “I’m encouraged by our rapid progress in bringing the heroin crisis to Congress’s front burner.  We are giving federal law enforcement agencies direct marching orders and an unprecedented new focus on helping communities in confronting this blight.  As a policy document, this bill clearly establishes that this is a localized problem.  Senators know, and we learned when the Judiciary Committee received testimony in March from community leaders, that this problem has regional echoes across New England, and national implications.  The Appropriations Committee’s action is our first legislative success, with several steps to go, but it’s the most important step.”

The bill includes $10 million for a new state-based Anti-Heroin Task Force Program, to be run by the Justice Department’s COPS Office (Community Oriented Policing Services), for making competitive grants to law enforcement agencies in states like Vermont with high per capita levels of primary treatment admissions for both heroin and other opioids.  The bill directs that the funds be used for drug enforcement, including investigations and activities related to the distribution of heroin or the unlawful diversion and distribution of prescription opioids.  The bill gives priority to existing drug task forces managed and operated by states like Vermont that serve a majority of counties in their states.

In its report language accompanying the bill, the committee also directs the Department of Justice (DOJ) to lead the federal government’s response to the heroin crisis and requires the agency to convene a task force including experts from law enforcement and from the medical, public health, and educational fields to develop a coordinated response.  DOJ is directed to report back within 30 days of the bill’s enactment with its initial plans, and the department must produce a final report with its findings and recommendations within one year. 

Leahy’s March 17 hearing in Rutland focused on community responses to the addiction problems.  Leahy also has held three previous hearings in Vermont on drug abuse and its related problems in rural America, in St. Albans, Barre and Rutland.  Those hearings focused in part on the successes of the Vermont Drug Task Force – an interagency federal-state-local partnership – for which Leahy has secured federal funds for more than a decade.  Leahy also applied the findings of those hearings in his subsequent work on reentry issues and drug treatment programs through his Second Chance Act, in his support for drug courts, and in other ways.

The bill also includes a variety of other Leahy priorities, including more resources for the programs of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) -- Leahy last year won enactment of his VAWA reauthorization bill which renewed and strengthened its programs; funding additions for the Leahy-authored Bulletproof Vest Partnership Grant Program for local police and sheriff’s departments; and raising the cap of the Crime Victims Fund to $775 million.  Complementing his Appropriations Committee roles, Leahy also chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, the authorizing committee with jurisdiction over the Justice Department, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and other law enforcement agencies.

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