Are We Finally Doing Something About the Opioid Crisis?

Fighting illicit drug use is not a partisan issue, or at least it shouldn’t be. No one wants to become a heroin addict. People are overdosing at the highest rate in decades and the president promised to do something about that. So far, it’s been all talk and no action.

Trump’s announcement that he was making opioid abuse a national emergency back in January was perhaps a gesture of good faith. But without the necessary funding and substantive changes to existing law, an announcement does little to nothing. Now, Trump’s administration is revisiting the topic and attempting to bring about meaningful change. How effective will it be?

The Pill Taskforce

Instead of focusing on treatment, as liberals and doctors want him to do, Trump believes the way to combat opioid abuse is by targeting drug makers. It’s a bit of a departure from the silly Reagan-era “war on drugs” fixes they were touting a few months back, and also a departure from the treatment-first approach seen at the end of the Obama administration. That doesn’t mean it will necessarily fail, but there are some factors to consider about this plan.

The release of powerful synthetic opioids like OxyContin in the early 2000s is seen by many as the beginning of the new drug crisis. Following the drug’s initial success, the crowds of people left seeking a fix when their prescriptions expired led to a spike in heroin use. Purdue Pharma eventually changed the drug’s formula to slow the release of the drug and reduce addictive tendencies, but the damage was done.

Trump’s team, headed up by attorney general Jeff Sessions, will now focus on mitigating cases like these before they are mishandled similarly to OxyContin. The administration is launching a flurry of lawsuits against drug makers, which Sessions says will help reimburse the country for some of the $115 billion in tax dollars spent reacting to the opioid crisis in 2017.

Executing the plan is a new task force called the Prescription Interdiction and Litigation Unit. The team will focus on reducing the number of initial opioid prescriptions by punishing those who’ve been incentivized to overprescribe the powerful drugs. The team will have access to medical data that should inform them about pharmacies and doctors dispensing higher-than-normal levels of the addictive drugs.

This effort coincides with Trump’s passage of the Interdict Act in January. The new act gives Federal agents access to more tools for the detection of particularly harmful substances like fentanyl-laced heroin at the border.

Still Much to Be Done

So there is some progress being made after several months of posturing by the administration, but the big question remains: will this have any impact? 64,000 people died in 2016 because of opioid overdoses. That is a tremendous number of lives to forfeit to something we should have better control over by now.

While these new steps may be a sign of more to come, there are some obvious moves that many point out Trump has lagged on. For example: the appointment of a new head of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Without quality leadership, we can expect the agency responsible for carrying out much of the investigative work required to crack down on drug manufacturers to be less efficient.

And then there’s funding. Trump’s promises do nothing unless we can allocate some money to bring them to life. Currently, the President has requested almost no new expenditures to make a difference here. Trump pledged to donate nearly all of his third-quarter salary to the effort, but that’s around $100,000. We’re dealing with a crisis that will take billions to overcome.

Even those who are supposedly working within Trump’s new opioid team have criticized the lack of effort. Democratic congressman Patrick Kennedy, a member of the opioid commission, has been critical of the operation, pointing a finger at Trump for giving the illusion of action when, in fact, no real moves are being made.

A Failed Father Figure

Trump continues to proselytize from his position of power, as if just telling the country that they need to stop doing drugs is going to make a profound difference. Comedian Seth Myers even compared Trump’s idea of a nationwide advertising campaign to discourage opioid use to the failed “just say no” ads of the 1990s.

With no sign of the situation improving, critics on all sides are becoming more suspicious of Trump’s approach. Some of the new policies sound like they could have potential, but thus far have lacked teeth due to insufficient funding and inane leadership choices, like former campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, who’s been chosen to lead the anti-opioid push within the administration.

It’s another example of Trump building himself up as a moral leader but failing to follow through with any real conviction — or results.