By Kelly Glista

The White House Office of Drug Policy said Monday that $2.5 million will be spent on a new initiative designed to combat the use and trafficking of heroin in 15 states, including Connecticut, by linking public health and law enforcement agencies with the goal of emphasizing treatment over punishment.

The new initiative, called the Heroin Response Strategy, will allow five designated High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area programs in the country to create networks where information on heroin-related issues can be shared, said Michael Botticelli, director of national drug control policy.

By establishing a system specifically designed to gather and share heroin-related threats in a region, public health and safety authorities can quickly dispatch extra resources to a community, limit the number of overdoses and prevent deaths, he said.

"The new Heroin Response Strategy demonstrates a strong commitment to address the heroin and prescription opioid epidemic as both a public health and a public safety issue," Botticelli said.

According to the Office of Drug Policy, each of the five regional programs included in the grant -- Appalachia, New England, Philadelphia/Camden, New York/New Jersey and Washington/Baltimore -- will select two centrally located regional coordinators, one with a public health focus and one with a public safety focus.

The public health coordinator will oversee the reporting of fatal and non-fatal overdoses in the region and ensure that alerts are issued to health authorities regarding dangerous batches of heroin or other heroin-related threats. The alerts will trigger a public health response to the affected communities to distribute naloxone, a drug marketed as Narcan that can counter the effects of an opioid overdose, or provide other additional resources.

The public safety coordinator will ensure that support is provided to areas that need it and that information on heroin use and sale is being disseminated to relevant law enforcement authorities to help them disrupt their community's supply of the drug.

Each High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program will comprise local, state and federal authorities who will work together to reduce drug trafficking and production. The New England program was established in 1999 and is based in Massachusetts.

Announcement of the program comes at a time when heroin deaths are spiking in Connecticut and throughout the country. In the past three years, heroin deaths have increased dramatically throughout Connecticut, with the drug playing a direct role in 306 fatalities last year, according to state medical examiner records.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared the sharp national increase in heroin use a public health crisis in July and called for a comprehensive response, including tighter control of narcotic painkillers that are often associated with heroin abuse and greater access to naloxone. State troopers in Connecticut began carrying Narcan kits in late October 2014.

Although state officials said they aren't yet sure what the new funding will mean specifically for Connecticut, the focus of the initiative is in line with several projects and programs that have already been put in place in the state.

Mary Kate Manson, communications director for the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, said the policies in Connecticut have already been shifting toward opiod prevention and treatment rather than punishment.

"Addiction is an illness. Punishing people because of an illness doesn't make sense," she said.

In July, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed the Second Chance Society bill that called for reduced penalties for drug possession, among other things, and sought to emphasize treatment and rehabilitation over punishment for possession of small amounts of drugs.

"We believe -- as the White House does -- in giving people a Second Chance," Malloy's director of media relations, Devon Puglia, said in a statement. "We, as a state, are making strides in working to curb opioid addiction, and we're focused on providing help to those who need it to become productive members of society."

(c)2015 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)