March 08, 2016

Udall Urges Congress to Take Action to Combat Drug Abuse Epidemic, Save Lives

Shares stories of New Mexicans suffering costs of addiction in speech on U.S. Senate floor

WASHINGTON - Today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall spoke on the Senate floor about the need to tackle the drug abuse epidemic in New Mexico communities and across the nation. The Senate is currently debating the bipartisan Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), a bill Udall cosponsors that would direct resources to prevent prescription opioid and heroin abuse, provide training and increased access to law enforcement officials for the lifesaving overdose-reversal drug naloxone, improve treatment options for incarcerated patients, and encourage state-based, comprehensive plans to address this epidemic. Udall has long fought to increase support to help communities treat and prevent drug abuse - particularly prescription opioid abuse, which is too often a gateway to heroin use.

"Oxycodone. Hydrocodone. Oxycontin. We have an epidemic of prescription drug abuse - drugs that wreck lives, wreck families, wreck entire communities," Udall said. "In my home state of New Mexico, we know this all too well. We have the second highest rate of drug overdose deaths. We are in crisis, and it is getting worse. More New Mexicans are dying from drug overdoses than ever before."

Udall shared the stories of several New Mexicans who have experienced the tragic effects of drug abuse close to home, including a father who recently lost his son: "This young man's father - who visited my office - is a medical professional in New Mexico. With all of the resources and knowledge available to him, he still was not able to prevent his son's tragic death last year at the age of 22."

In 2014, New Mexico had the second-highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Addiction knows no boundaries of race, gender or background," Udall continued. "But our Hispanic and Tribal communities - in places like Rio Arriba County, New Mexico - are ground zero. Rio Arriba County has the highest rate in the nation - more than five times the national average, year after year."

"That's why we need to pass the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. Because this isn't just about addiction. It's about recovery. It's about giving hope to those who feel hopeless," said Udall, who has also introduced the Increasing the Safety of Prescription Drug Use Act to expand access to treatment options for addicted patients, strengthen training for medical professionals and increase abuse prevention opportunities.

Udall said CARA is a step forward, but Congress also needs to commit funding to address the drug abuse epidemic head-on. Last week, the Senate Republicans blocked an amendment Udall cosponsored to add $600 million in emergency funding to the legislation. Udall said he would keep up the fight for funding as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, adding: "Our commitment has to be equal to the challenge, so I am quite disappointed that last week we did not pass a key amendment for additional emergency funding."

Udall also supports the president's proposal to dedicate $1.1 billion to fight the heroin and prescription opioid abuse epidemic in New Mexico and across the country.


Below are Udall's remarks as prepared for delivery:

Every day, someone in our nation dies - a son, daughter, a parent - from a drug overdose. Most are from prescription drugs - from opioid painkillers. Drugs intended to bring comfort, and too often bring tragedy.

Oxycodone. Hydrocodone. Oxycontin. We have an epidemic of prescription drug abuse - drugs that wreck lives, wreck families, wreck entire communities.

In my home state of New Mexico, we know this all too well. We have the second highest rate of drug overdose deaths. We are in crisis, and it is getting worse. More New Mexicans are dying from drug overdoses than ever before.

It touches home, and it hits hard. One of those we lost was a young man named Cameron Weiss. According to the Albuquerque Journal, Cameron was 18 years old. An athlete. A poet. Then he became addicted to pain killers for treatment of sports injuries. That led - as it often does - to heroin. Within two years, this promising young manwith his whole life ahead of himwas dead from a heroin overdose.

His mom, Jennifer Weiss, took her grief and now works to help others. She founded a group called Healing Addiction in Our Community after Cameron's death, helping other young people struggling with addiction.

"Something tragic has to happen before change happens," she told the Journal, "Unfortunately, when it comes to heroin, that tragedy happens all the time."

Most of us know young people like Cameron. A similar story of another young life lost from a heroin overdose was shared with me just last week. This young man's father - who visited my office - is a medical professional in New Mexico. With all of the resources and knowledge available to him, he still was not able to prevent his son's tragic death last year at the age of 22.

One of my own staff members who was raised in Albuquerque lost four of his friends from Cibola High School. All four turned to heroin after abusing prescription drugs. One was his best friend, Michael, whose life was cut short at 30 years old.

We see this pattern time and again. A person becomes addicted to painkillers. Then turns to another prescription - or to heroin, which is cheaper and easier to get. It is a lethal combination and a downward spiral.

We've all heard the numbers, and they are chilling. Opioid-related deaths quadrupled nationally from 2002 to 2013. In 2014, nearly 30,000 Americans died from prescription opioid and heroin overdose. More Americans die each year from drug overdoses than from car crashes.

Addiction knows no boundaries of race, gender or background. But our Hispanic and Tribal communities - in places like Rio Arriba County, New Mexico - are ground zero. Rio Arriba County has the highest rate in the nation - more than five times the national average, year after year.

Just a few weeks ago, KOB-TV reported on the toll this is taking generation after generation. Casting a long shadow over the beautiful Española Valley, a young man named Rufus Billy said, "Growing up here, they'd say this was the heroin capital of the world." For many, prescription painkillers come first and heroin comes later.

According to KOB, prevention groups report that 2 million opiate prescriptions were filled in New Mexico in 2014 - double the number from 10 years ago.

The abuse is so severe, according to Rio Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan, that "six and seven year olds are talking about grandma and grandpa being addicts...It's like a never ending cycle."

New Mexico is on the ropes, and so many other states are as well. I have listened to my colleagues from both sides of the aisle. The stories are heartbreaking. This is a war, and sadly, we are losing the fight.

Mr. President, this is not just about numbers. It is about families and communities torn apart. And too often, it is a story of looking for helpand not finding it.

We can change that, but it will take more than words. More than handwringing. It will take real commitment. And let's be clear, real money.

Rehab saves lives. Not always. That is a tragedy all its own for some families. But treatment certainly can't help when you can't get it. People are desperate - trying to get treatment, trying to get help. We see this every day - especially in rural states like New Mexico.

That's why we need to pass the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. Because this isn't just about addiction. It's about recovery. It's about giving hope to those who feel hopeless.

I am proud to co-sponsor this bill, and I want to thank Senators Whitehouse and Shaheen for their leadership. CARA will help states and local communities fight this battle for prevention, education, treatment and law enforcement efforts.

CARA is a step forward, and we urgently need to move forward. We can't keep falling behind.

In Spanish, "cara" means face. We should remember the faces. Remember our loved ones. These are not just statistics.

That's why I have also introduced the Increasing the Safety of Prescription Drug Use Act to improve monitoring of prescriptions, and for better referral of addicts to treatment services. It also directs the FDA to review Naloxone - which is an important life-saving medication - for over the counter use.

Mr. President, in the time I have been speaking, how many more Americans have overdosed? How many more parents are grieving?

This is a crisis. We need to tackle it head-on. There are proven strategies. We need to make sure they are available - I think we can all agree on that. We can't just say what works. We need to pay for what works.

Our commitment has to be equal to the challenge, so I am quite disappointed that last week we did not pass a key amendment for additional emergency funding. There is a lot of talk about the opioid crisis in America today. In our communities, in our media, on the campaign trail and on the Senate floor.

It's time that we put our money where our mouth is. The bill today is a reauthorization bill. These programs largely already exist. We need to step them up with real resources behind them. I will keep up the fight to do that in the appropriations process.

The president has proposed $1.1 billion dollars to fight this epidemic. I applaud his commitment and I will continue to do all I can to push for critical funding.

These are legal drugs that become lethal drugs. They are meant to ease pain, not create more pain. And not open a door to prescription drug abuse - to heroin and to death.

The challenge is great. So must be our response, from every angle. At the federal, state, and local levels. From drug companies to drug dealers, from doctor's offices to the streets.

This is a critical discussion, and this is a time to act for prevention and for treatment. There is a road to recovery - it is not an easy road, but we can work together. And we can move forward.

Let's not lose another 30,000 Americans to drug overdose.