President Trump is expected to declare a public health emergency today on the opioid overdose crisis. According to news reports, Trump will issue a very limited directive that does not involve new federal funding for the crisis. Advocates say that Trump’s planned declaration may be a tiny step in the right direction, but that the administration’s broader approach to drug policy is part of the problem.
“President Trump’s declaration today amounts to a drop in the bucket compared to what the White House and Congress should be delivering to address this crisis,” said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “We need a well thought out plan from the Trump administration that resolves the many obstacles people face trying to access medication-assisted treatment and naloxone to save lives. We need new funding from Congress to fix our broken treatment infrastructure and boost public health capabilities to end this crisis. We need to implement proven strategies that have not been tried yet in the U.S., like supervised injection facilities to prevent overdose deaths and reduce opioid-related harm. We need to end drug criminalization and stop incarcerating people who are struggling.”
There are serious questions as to whether the Trump administration will effectively use an emergency declaration in the coming days and weeks, or will instead use it as an excuse to escalate the war on drugs. In recent months, President Trump has repeatedly expressed support for “strong law enforcement” approaches to dealing with drug use while saying or doing little to offer a public health response to the crisis. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has pursued a hardline agenda on drug policy. Advocates worry that an emergency declaration could give the Trump administration greater leverage to push Congress for more drug enforcement funding and harsher sentencing laws. Such an approach has already been in place for decades, has proven wholly ineffective at reducing drug use or any drug-related harms, and has had a devastating effect on people across the US, particularly from communities of color.
“President Trump has a long track record of using hardline rhetoric to talk about how his administration should approach drug policy,” said Smith. “There’s a danger that this president will use an emergency declaration as an excuse to ratchet up the war on drugs with more funding for locking up more people and harsher sentencing laws.”
Evidence-based prevention, treatment, and harm reduction interventions can help to stem the tide of opioid overdose fatalities. The Drug Policy Alliance has detailed specific policy proposals in this regard in its “Public Health and Safety Plan to Address Problematic Opioid Use and Overdose.” Trump’s own bi-partisan opioid commission has also offered many health-centered recommendations. If Trump embraces these recommendations – and moves away from the failed policies of the war on drugs – his administration has an opportunity to chart a new course on the overdose crisis.
“Any meaningful plan to address opioid overdoses has to begin with recognizing how the war on drugs has itself contributed to the widespread lack of education about drugs, and poor access to overdose prevention and treatment, that set the stage for this crisis,” said Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “As long as Trump keeps up the war on drugs, initiatives like those we expect he will announce today will be like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound.”