Zirpoli: Wrong response to opioid crisis

When it comes to the opioid crisis in America, President Donald Trump has been, thus far, all talk.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the opioid crisis is taking 115 lives every day. Yet, 13 months into his presidency there is still no comprehensive plan to deal with the opioid crisis in America. When asked about this recently in Cincinnati, the president stated that the crisis “has never been worse.” He went on to say that while people in “blue ribbon committees” are giving him recommendations, he has “a different take on it.” He said, “My take is you have to get really, really tough, really mean with the drug pushers and the drug dealers.”


Trump was referring to the blue ribbon committee he asked former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to lead last year. The Christie committee came up with more than 50 recommendations. Thus far, according Greg Allen in a report for National Public Radio, the Trump administration has ignored most of the committee’s recommendations.

Unfortunately, Trump still believes that the opioid crisis is caused by “drug pushers and drug dealers” from Mexico. In fact, most of the people becoming addicted to opioid drugs are prescribed them legally by medical providers for pain. The “drug pushers and drug dealers” Trump talks about turn out to be our community medical providers trying to balance effective pain management and rising mental health needs without contributing to the prescription drug crisis.

A wall on the Mexican border will not impact the opioid crisis in America. As stated by the DHHS website, “The United States is in the midst of a prescription drug overdose epidemic. The amount of prescription drugs prescribed and sold in the United States has nearly quadrupled” since 1999 while “there has not been an overall change in the amount of pain that Americans report.” Prescription and over-the-counter drugs for pain, ADHD and anti-anxiety are a major source of drug abuse for young adults (age 18 to 25) according to DHHS. Their website states that about 11 percent of young people aged 12 to 25 use prescription drugs for non-medical reasons and that “every day in the United States, 44 people die as a result of prescription opioid overdose.”

So what has Trump done to deal with this “public health emergency” he declared in October of 2017? Not much. In his first budget (2018) he did not ask Congress for additional funds to combat the crisis. Last week, it was Democrats in the Senate who inserted money for the opioid crisis into the budget compromise bill that kept the government open. Any additional powers Trump has given to the Justice Department or other federal departments to deal with the crisis has focused on law enforcement, not prevention or treatment. In his 2019 budget released on Monday, Trump is asking for funding for the opioid crisis with unknown specifics at this time.

Trump says that the drug crisis in America is a top priority. Yet, according to NPR’s Allen, Trump has not yet appointed someone to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Nor has he appointed someone to head the Drug Enforcement Agency. These are the two primary agencies of the U.S. government to establish drug policy and both are leaderless. Instead of using the usual offices to fight the opioid crisis, run by professionals, Trump has begun a new campaign, run out of the White House and directed by Kellyanne Conway, who has no expertise or experience in this field and, following Trump’s wishes, is focused on border security and building a wall on the Mexican border.

In his 2018 budget sent to Congress, Trump recommended cutting the Office of National Drug Control Policy funding by 95 percent. In other words, he tried to close the office and its work. Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford and drug czar for President Barack Obama, said it was like recommending “closing a fire station in the middle of a wild fire.” His proposed 2018 budget also recommended a $400 million cut in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. These funds are distributed to states to help run treatment programs.

We cannot solve the drug crisis in America by blaming Mexicans and building walls. This is a domestic crisis of our own making. For now, it seems, dealing with this crisis will continue to be on the backs of states and local governments.