The United States continues to experience what experts are calling an “opioid epidemic.” In 2015, there was an average of 91 opioid overdose deaths daily in the United States. Preliminary statistics from 2016 indicate that this number has only increased.
With these alarming statistics, it’s no surprise that the opioid crisis made its way into the 2016 presidential election. Throughout his campaign, President Trump discussed the severity of the opioid epidemic and vowed to tackle the problem.
What Has Trump Done to Address the Opioid Crisis?
In March, Trump signed an Executive Order launching the Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, a bipartisan advisory committee chaired by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
The committee, which is also being referred to as Trump’s “opioid task force,” was created to “combat and treat the scourge of drug abuse, addiction, and the opioid crisis.” It will locate federal funds for combatting the health crisis and may also propose changes to the criminal justice system that would assist opioid addicts after being released from prison.
What Are the Task Force’s Recommendations?
In late July, Trump’s opioid task force released its preliminary report on the state of the country’s opioid epidemic, in addition to their recommendations for addressing the crisis.
These recommendations include:
- Equipping communities and law enforcement with naloxone, which reverses the effects of an opioid overdose
- Using federal incentives to make treatments like methadone and buprenorphine more widely available
- Making addiction treatment more accessible by expanding Medicaid
- Educating doctors about opioid addiction through extension courses and continuing medical education
Declaring a national emergency, the task force stated, would “force Congress to focus on funding and empowering the Executive Branch even further to deal with this loss of life.” It would also “awaken every American to this simple fact: if this scourge has not found you or your family yet, without bold action by everyone, it soon will.”
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, in explaining the need for a state of national emergency, said that approximately 142 Americans die daily from an opioid overdose. This means America is “enduring a death toll equal to September 11th every three weeks.”
How Did Trump Respond?
Despite the recommendations of his opioid task force, Trump initially declined to declare a state of emergency, saying that the opioid crisis is different from a national emergency lasting for a set period of time, such as a natural disaster.
Later, Trump informally referred to the opioid crisis as a “national emergency” and said official paperwork would be drawn up, but his administration has not yet made a formal declaration.
Trump further remarked on his displeasure with decreased federal drug prosecutions and with shorter prison sentences for drug offenders.
How Have Opioid Experts Responded to the Task Force?
According to some leading opioid experts, the opioid task force’s recommendations are a step in the right direction.
However, there are additional factors that should be considered, according to other experts. Dr. Corey Waller, Senior Medical Director of Education and Policy for the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers, says access to quality treatment should be a priority and that the committee “needs to make sure they define what quality means, and utilize the language of expansion of access to high-quality programs that use evidence-based medicine.”
Others are concerned about the appointment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions to the opioid task force.
Sessions has been outspoken in support of harsher sentences for drug offenders. In May, Sessions ordered federal prosecutors to pursue the toughest possible sentences. He also advocated for more uniform punishment, including mandatory minimum sentences. Christie, too, has a reputation for being “tough on crime.”
Inmai Chettiar, Director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program, commented on the administration’s indication that it will increase arrest and enforcement for drug crimes. “We hope [the administration] will focus those efforts on treatment as well. We know prison doesn’t work to address drug crime and abuse.”
It’s too early to predict the impact of Trump’s opioid task force, but the committee has made recommendations that would be a step toward combatting the opioid epidemic.
On the other hand, experts worry that Trump’s administration may focus too heavily on punishing, rather than rehabilitating, drug addicts.
It’s also unclear whether President Trump will implement the recommendations made by his advisory committee.