The Trump administration's inept plan to tackle the opioid epidemic is set to turn a public health crisis into a national catastrophe. Yesterday, President Trump finally took action after months of promising to declare the opioid epidemic a national emergency. Only he didn't follow through with that promise. Instead, he declared the situation a national public health emergency, a lower designation that doesn't offer the same scope of solutions.
Declaring a national emergency would have allowed the federal government to access money through the FEMA Disaster Relief Fund. In contrast, declaring a national public health crisis lets the feds access the Public Health Emergency Fund. Which sounds good till you realize there's only $57,000 left in that fund, and Congress has no plans to chip in more cash. So Trump wants the federal government to curb an epidemic with less money than it costs to buy an ambulance.
To put it another way, that $57,000 is less than one buck for every American who died of a drug overdose in 2016.
That number looks even worse compared to the billions that Trump wants to spend on a giant wall along America's border with Mexico. The president brought up the border wall again during his opioid address, saying the structure would help curb drug addiction in the nation. "An astonishing 90 percent of the heroin comes from south of the border, where we will be building a wall which will greatly help in this problem," he vowed.
But that solution addresses one symptom, not the cause of the epidemic. According to pain-management specialist Dr. Bobby Dey, addicts typically turn to heroin when they can't get opioids like Percocet anymore. Some addicts get cut off by doctors for exceeding their prescribed amount of painkillers, while others simply can't afford the longterm costs of their prescriptions. That means cutting off the supply of heroin won't curb their addiction but force them to find yet another alternative on the streets. So instead of using the opioid death toll as mortar for the border wall, Trump should invest those billions into better treatment programs and research into alternative medications.
The president acknowledged the need for safer alternatives to opioids yesterday and called on National Institute of Health to work with pharmaceutical companies to develop them. But he didn't mention the green elephant in the room: medical marijuana. Since repealing marijuana prohibition in 2012, Colorado has seen a significant drop in opioid-related deaths. On top of that, recent studies suggest marijuana could wean people off opioid addiction. But despite that evidence, the federal government refuses to consider marijuana as an option. In fact, Attorney General Jeff Sessions insists it is part of the opioid problem.
"When you talk to police chiefs, consistently they say much of the addiction starts with marijuana," Sessions said yesterday at a Heritage Foundation forum in Washington, D.C. "We’ve got to reestablish, first, a view that you should just say no. People should say no to drug use."
Trump echoed that sentiment in his opioid speech. "If we can teach young people not to take drugs, just not to take them....if we can teach young people and people generally not to start, it's really, really easy not to take them."
But the 'Just Say No' approach wasn't effective in the 80s and likely won't be effective now. Telling kids to 'just say no' seemed reasonable when the goal was preparing them to face pushy crack dealers on the streets. But most opioid addictions begin with legal prescriptions, so telling people to 'just say no' to doctors just doesn't make sense.
Nor does teaming up with the pharmaceutical industry since Big Pharma has played a big part in exacerbating the epidemic. In 2016, pharmaceutical companies successfully lobbied Congress to pass a bill that prevents the DEA from cracking down on crooked distributors that sent ludicrous amounts of pain pills across the country — like the 9 million tablets of hydrocodone that were sent over two years to a West Virginia town of just 392 people. That's over 22,950 pills per resident, unless those tablets were actually shipped to supply illicit markets as the DEA suspected. But cracking down on distributors is bad for business, so Big Pharma lobbyists stepped in to impede the DEA.
That means this crisis is about corrupt politics and a diseased political system as well as public health, so it should be treated as a national emergency. But lawmakers like Congressman Andy Harris (R-Maryland) are defending Trump's handling of the situation as a lesser crisis. "This is a public health emergency – the president is spot on," Rep. Harris told Rolling Stone. "This is not a hurricane. This is not a tornado."
And he's right: over the last century, hurricanes killed roughly 24,220 Americans. In contrast, opioids have killed over 300,000 Americans in the last 20 years.. So, yeah, it's not a national emergency it's much, much worse. And things won't get better until the Trump administration recognizes that and offers a competent solution.