Last week, President Donald Trump directed the Department of Health and Human Services to declare the opioid crisis a public health emergency. According to The Associated Press, the opioid epidemic is the most widespread and deadly drug crisis in American history.
Opioids are manmade drugs created to reduce pain, and in some instances, to curtail addiction. Opioids include both legal painkillers like morphine and oxycodone and addiction treatment drugs like methadone. In addition, opioids include illegal drugs such as heroin.
To put the crisis into perspective consider this, the National Center for Health Statistics in 2016 reported there were more 64,000 overdose deaths in the United States—76 percent involved opioids. That is an average of 134 opioid overdose deaths a day.
Drug overdoses already kill more Americans than car crashes and, in a grim milestone, more people died from heroin-related causes than from gun homicides in 2015. As recently as 2007, gun homicides outnumbered heroin deaths by more than 5 to 1, reported the Washington Post.
No place has experienced the suffering of opioid addiction more than West Virginia. The Charleston Gazette-Mail analyzed shipment data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and found that 423 million opioid painkillers were delivered to West Virginia between 2007 and 2012.
In Kermit, West Virginia, population 392, drug companies shipped nearly 9 million opioid pills over 2 years to a single pharmacy, reported the Post.
Trump said, “This epidemic is a national health emergency . . . No part of our society—not young or old, rich or poor, urban or rural—has been spared this plague of drug addiction and this horrible, horrible situation that’s taken place with opioids.”
In fact, the opioid crisis is so far-reaching that it has had an impact on life expectancy in this country. While overdose deaths in general in the U.S. more than doubled in 15-years, opioid overdoses more than tripled, revealed a study from the Centers for Disease Control. The study found that the average American’s life expectancy grew from 2000 to 2015. In 2016, the opioid crisis and related overdoses have shaved 2.5 months off that number.
This week, the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis recommended a national media campaign to encourage opioid addicts to seek help. Only 10.6 percent of people who need treatment get it, the report noted.
The media campaign would encourage addicts to “stop being afraid or ashamed of seeking help when facing their addiction.”
The commission also suggests expansion of drug courts, in which addicts convicted of nonviolent offenses are diverted into programs that combine treatment with mandatory drug testing and court appearances. The commission said drug courts, which are currently offered in just 44 percent of U.S. counties, should embrace medication-assisted treatment to improve outcomes.
The president touched on a media campaign when he announced that the opioid crisis is a national emergency. Trump said the government would produce “really tough, really big, really great advertising” aimed at persuading Americans not to start using opioids in the first place. The New York Times suggests that Trump is seemingly harking back to the “Just Say No” antidrug campaign led by Nancy Reagan in the 1980s.
“This was an idea that I had, where if we can teach young people not to take drugs,” Trump said, “it’s really, really easy not to take them.”
What was absent from the president’s declaration and the commission’s report was resources. The commission made recommendations regarding the distribution of existing federal funds, but made no demand for additional funding.
Practitioners on the frontline fighting addiction are concerned that the proposals are meaningless without dedicating resources for implementation. The concern is amplified when the commission talks of reshuffling existing funding at the expense of existing programs.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.