“Nobody is safe from this epidemic that threatens young and old, rich and poor, urban and rural communities. Everybody is threatened. Drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, and opioid overdose deaths have nearly quadrupled since 1999. It is a problem the likes of which we have not seen.”
President Trump recently offered this summary of the opioid crisis. He went on to offer explanations for why these numbers continue to climb and what his administration plans to do about them. His comments focused on law enforcement and prevention approaches to curb the epidemic, along with calling for greater prosecution of drug crimes and an emphasis on abstinence.
Let’s take a look at the President’s commentary, evaluate his ideas on combatting the epidemic, and assess overall public reaction to the speech.
Prosecute and Protect
Regarding legal action against drug crimes, Trump noted, “…federal drug prosecutions have gone down in recent years. We’re going to be bringing them up and bringing them up rapidly. At the end of 2016, there were 23 percent fewer than in 2011.” Referring to the Obama administration, he added, “So, they looked at this scourge and they let it go by, and we’re not letting it go by. The average sentence length for a convicted federal drug offender decreased 20 percent from 2009 to 2016.”
The President went on to note, “We’re also working with law enforcement officers to protect innocent citizens from drug dealers that poison our communities. Strong law enforcement is absolutely vital to having a drug-free society. We’re also very, very tough on the southern border, where much of this comes in. And we’re talking to China, where certain forms of man-made drug come in, and it’s bad. And we’re speaking to other countries and we’re getting cooperation, but we’re being very, very strong on our southern border and, I would say, the likes of which this country certainly has never seen that kind of strength.”
Revisiting “Just Say No”
In addition to greater law enforcement, President Trump recommended we ramp up efforts focused on prevention.
He stated, “The best way to prevent drug addiction and overdose is to prevent people from abusing drugs in the first place. If they don’t start, they won’t have a problem. If they do start, it’s awfully tough to get off. So, we can keep them from going on, and maybe by talking to youth and telling them, “No good; really bad for you” in every way. But if they don’t start, it’ll never be a problem.”
Trump concluded, “I’ve had the opportunity to hear from many on the front lines of the opioid epidemic, and I’m confident that by working with our healthcare and law enforcement experts, we will fight this deadly epidemic and the United States will win.”
While we’ve seen plenty of support for the President’s plans, not everyone agrees with his approach.
Bill Piper, senior director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said that a better solution would be to focus “on the treatment side of things.” He noted that stricter enforcement efforts have always failed in the past.
Piper explained, “A supply-side approach to drugs has never worked. That is what has been tried for decades and it has failed for every drug it has applied to, including alcohol during Prohibition. As long as there has been and demand for drugs, there will be a supply.” Piper noted that this type of focus makes the administration sound tough but doesn’t actually solve the opioid crisis.
He claimed, “It makes it look like they are doing something even when they are not.”
Is the Opioid Epidemic a National Emergency?
The President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, formed in March, recently recommended the president “declare a national emergency under either the Public Health Service Act or the Stafford Act.”
This declaration would:
- Remove barriers to treatment
- Put pressure on Congress to provide more funding for treatment
However, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price explained that “national emergency” declarations are typically reserved for time-limited problems such as natural disasters. He also noted that the Trump administration can waive rules or quickly lift restrictions without declaring an emergency. With these considerations in mind, President Trump seemed to be leaning against following the Commission’s advisement.
Price explained, “The president certainly believes that it is, that we will treat it as an emergency — and it is an emergency. When you have the capacity of Yankee stadium or Dodger stadium dying every single year in this nation, that’s a crisis that has to be given incredible attention, and the president is giving it that attention.”
Yes, It’s a National Emergency
After further consideration, President Trump decided to move forward with the full declaration. He announced on August 10th that he will officially declare the opioid crisis a “national emergency” and will increase government efforts to fight the epidemic.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions supported Trump’s decision, commending him for “taking this drastic and necessary measure to confront an opioid crisis that is devastating communities around the country and ripping families apart.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, head of the Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, also applauded the President’s decision. Christie noted, “As I have said before, I am completely confident that the President will address this problem aggressively and do all he can to alleviate the suffering and loss of scores of families in every corner of our country.”
Additional Reading: Trump and the Future of Addiction Treatment
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