INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Months after recent outbreaks of HIV and hepatitis drew national attention to rampant intravenous drug abuse in some parts of Indiana, Gov. Mike Pence announced on Tuesday the creation of a task force that will explore the best way to fight addiction.
The Republican governor’s move comes as authorities across the U.S. are shifting approaches to illegal drug use, moving away from a get-tough-on-crime approach in favor of reduced sentencing for low-level offenders and an acknowledgement that addiction is a public health concern.
“We simply cannot arrest our way out of this problem,” Pence said at a news conference. “We have to recognize that we also have to address the root causes of addiction and focus on treatment.”
The move also corresponds with a surge in the number of heroin-related deaths in the state, which shot up to 152 in 2013 from just 16 in 2007. In fact, Pence says Indiana now has the 16th-highest drug overdose rate in the country.
The 21-member task force will hold three meetings around Indiana during the coming months as it considers ways to improve the state’s response in treating and preventing drug abuse. Pence says he’s open to acting on recommendations made by the task force, either by changing state policy or by changing law during the 2016 legislative session. Pence stopped short of saying he would seek additional funding should the task force recommend the state increase spending.
“This is not just about law and order. It’s about our kids, it’s about our families,” Pence said. “The time has come for a fresh approach and a fresh look.”
Some critics say Pence’s creation of a task force amounts to too little too late, pointing toward an outbreak of what is now some 180 HIV cases in Scott County of rural southern Indiana that health officials say has been largely driven by needle-sharing among people injecting a liquefied form of the painkiller Opana.
Pence was reluctant to sanction needle exchanges that could have limited the outbreak. He approved one only after the county’s public health crisis drew widespread attention, and needle exchanges are still allowed only under limited circumstances in a small number of counties.
“While this crisis has been apparent for more than a year, this is an issue Gov. Pence has been, to this point, jarringly silent on,” Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane of Anderson said in a statement. “I’m skeptical Gov. Pence will do the right thing, when as recently as last year his idea of reform was building more prisons and doubling down on extreme sentences for low-level offenders.”
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.