On October 26, 2017, President Trump declared the opiate overdose crisis a public health emergency.
In response to Trump’s speech, The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) noted that he made his strategy clear, “to stick his head in the sand and point the finger at immigrants.” The President’s approach appears to be a case of recognizing the problem, misidentifying the cause, and doing little or nothing to really address the issue. But, why should he be different than every president since Nixon, who started this entire expensive, ineffective, bureaucratic drug war misadventure?
The DPA were stunned that President Trump echoed the empty policy of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” rhetoric. They stated that Trump “failed to mention anything about the harms of prohibition.” Further, they point to prohibition as the reason the nation is failing to properly address this so-called epidemic. By taking a criminal justice approach, we are creating a substantial barrier to taking appropriate action to effectively intervene.”
I, and many others with qualified opinions, tend to agree.
Albert Hunt of Bloomberg.com also was critical of President Trump sitting on his hands. He wrote, “In the fight against the country’s devastating opioid epidemic, President Trump is a no-show.” Hunt claims, “most of the 175 Americans who die each day from overdoses are from the working class and rural communities.” He adds, “since his commission on the opioid crisis called for dramatic action in its report on Nov. 1, the president has sat on his hands.” Hunt’s critique goes on, “Trump nominated Rep. Tom Marino, who had to withdraw after revelations he sponsored opioid legislation that Big Pharma essentially wrote.”
The President then named White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway as his opiate “point person.” She, of course, is a pollster and spin doctor with none of the experience required to properly advise anyone on the subject.
Whether or not President Trump departs from the failed drug policy position of his predecessors, it’s well past time for Congress to act intelligently and responsibly to support a policy aimed at prevention, early intervention and treatment, not punishment. He needs to recognize this as a public health issue, not a criminal justice matter. Even President Nixon spent a majority of the Drug Czar’s budget on treatment, not law enforcement. He was the last and only president to do so. While ending prohibition tomorrow would be a great first step, we can’t wait for that. It’s like waiting for Godot. We need to fund the approach that we continually give lip service to and then don’t fund, that is, supporting healthy parenting in healthy families in a healthy economy.
There is bipartisan agreement that strong families in a strong economy lead to healthier children and families. With that in mind, we are seeing Congress miss an excellent chance to deal with this problem in the recently-passed tax bill. Tax cuts for the rich are just the opposite of what is needed to help quell the opiate epidemic. Congress should revisit the recently passed tax bill and make more tax cuts for the middle class and the poor.
If Congress is truly serious about addressing the overdose crisis, the path most likely to lead to success will be to embrace health-based solutions and eventually decriminalize drug use and possession. This policy has been effective in Uruguay, Portugal, Switzerland and the Czech Republic.
Opiate overdose deaths kill over 50,000 people each year. The American Medical Association pointed out over three years ago that in states where medicinal cannabis is legal, there was a 25 percent drop in opiate overdoses compared to states where cannabis remained illegal. The DEA is now trying to compound matters by moving to make Kratom illegal. Kratom is a plant used in Southeast Asia to treat pain for over 1,500 years. It is proving useful here in the U.S. in getting people off opiates.
President Trump had a chance to do something meaningful by stemming the tide of these deaths. Unfortunately, his do-nothing approach is condemning even more people to death, imprisonment, and deportation and this is all in the name of his so-called War on Drugs. But, why should he be any different than the last five presidents? None of them have had the moral courage to approach a medical problem medically. Trump should not want to be associated with those failed policies of his predecessors.
Someone Trump listens to, such as conservative House member Dana Rohrbacher, a surfer and author of the Rohrbacher-Farr amendment, should approach the President on this matter. During the 2016 election cycle Rohrbacher stated publicly that he thought Mr. Trump would support medical cannabis because Donald J. Trump had used topical cannabis infused salve to treat bursitis and arthritis in his shoulder.
Prohibition makes matters worse. Prohibition fuels the overdose crisis. It pushes drugs underground where they avoid regulation and treatment. By promoting “Just say no” rhetoric, prohibition stigmatizes individuals, discouraging them from finding the treatment resources they need.
Here are a few of DPA and my recommended solutions that the President and Congress should embrace immediately:
· Eliminate red tape that restricts access to methadone and buprenorphine. These are forms of medication-assisted treatment which are considered to be the most effective therapy for opioid dependence.
· Educate physicians about the analgesic properties of cannabis.
· Educate physicians about the therapeutic properties of Kratom.
· Expand access to naloxone, a medication that rapidly reverses an opioid overdose.
· Regulate fentanyl better, or better yet consider taking it off the market.
· Educate physicians about the dangers of fentanyl.
· Invest in drug checking kits that help people detect fentanyl and other potent drugs before use of street drugs
· Promote the creation of safe consumption sites where people who use drugs can do so safely.
· Legalize medical marijuana across the country. This has helped reduce opioid dependence and opiate overdose deaths in states where it’s available.
· Emphasize good quality parenting.
· Fund programs that including teaching children coping skills, decision making skills and promote self-esteem and help develop personal responsibility.
· Support a living wage so parents can afford to spend quality time with their children.
We, the American public, know what to do. Many in Congress give lip service to good parenting and good jobs but do little to make these important things happen. As President Trump’s speech demonstrated, we just don’t have the political will to do the productive policies necessary to improve the situation.
The President can’t believe that just by declaring the current situation of excessive, inappropriate opiate use a “national emergency” that that will be sufficient. He can and should take action that will give his political supporters relief. He must give them hope for improving their lives based on action not rhetoric; hope for the real economy and real wages to improve as opposed to just being a tool for the upper 1%. Maybe just maybe, Mr. Trump will get this one right. If he does it will be a win for common sense and the American people and we will owe President Trump a debt of gratitude. I’m not holding my breath.