President Trump says he is preparing to declare a national emergency on the opioid crisis. This announcement comes just two days after he said that he favored “strong law enforcement” and a “Just Say No” type approach to prevention and education. He said on Tuesday, “talking to youth and telling them 'no good, really bad for you'... if they don't start, it will never be a problem.” These comments stand in stark contrast to the interim recommendations that President Trump’s own bipartisan opioid commission released last month that would prioritize a health-based response to the crisis and greater access to medication-assisted treatment and naloxone.
“An emergency declaration can be used for good but President Trump has given every indication so far he and his administration want to escalate the failed war on drugs,” said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Trump’s emergency declaration is likely going to amount to very little in the way of greater access to treatment and other help from the federal government. What it could mean though is Trump and his attorney general Jeff Sessions using the emergency declaration to step up the kind of ‘strong law enforcement’ response to the opioid crisis that Sessions has been pursuing all along,” said Smith.
The opioid commission’s recommendations contrast sharply from the Trump administration’s overall response to the opioid crisis to date. For instance, President Trump made repeal of the Affordable Care Act a top priority, which would threaten healthcare and access to treatment and mental health services for millions of people living with substance use disorder.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has repeatedly dismissed the value of treatment and pursued a hardline agenda that has escalated the war on drugs. Sessions declared that the opioid crisis is a “winnable war” and urged law enforcement to pursue prosecutions for illegal possession of prescriptions just two days after the opioid commission released its interim report that called for a health-based response.
“President Trump’s bipartisan opioid commission makes clear that this crisis demands a health-based response,” said Smith. “People who are looking for this administration to use a national emergency to ramp up access to treatment and step up a health-based response to the opioid crisis are going to need to be vigilant that this indeed happens, and that the emergency declaration doesn’t give the Trump Administration more license to escalate the drug war,” said Smith.
Advocates say that the opioid commission’s recommendations reflect a dire need to treat the opioid overdose crisis as a health issue and not a criminal issue. The Trump Administration and Congress should prioritize scaling up access to the overdose-reversal drug naloxone and medication-assisted treatment, like methadone and buprenorphine, and resist efforts to expand the use of mandatory minimum sentences and criminalization.