Credit President Trump with appropriate timing. On the day that updated government statistics confirmed that deaths from opioid overdoses continued to set records in 2016, he convened a meeting on the issue at his New Jersey vacation spot. Whatever welcome sense of urgency might have been demonstrated by that decision, though, was quickly undercut by what the president said during the public portion of the gathering.
After an appropriate nod to prevention, which is indeed a potentially efficient means of stemming the epidemic, Trump launched an extended attack on his predecessor’s record, accusing President Barack Obama’s administration of having reduced drug prosecutions and failing to achieve longer sentences in those drug-related cases it won. Not only did this inject a discordantly partisan note into a subject that had heretofore brought Democrats and Republicans together, but also it was of dubious logic. For much if not most of the Obama presidency, users obtained opioids through legal channels - starting with doctor prescriptions. At least Obama’s administration sought to clamp down on that through tightened national prescribing guidelines late in his term.
Trump’s promise to deal with the opioid epidemic as a “battle,” in which “strong law enforcement is absolutely vital,” has its place. There must be greater interdiction of deadly fentanyl that comes from foreign suppliers, mainly in China. His own commission on the opioid crisis made that point - but otherwise did not emphasize law enforcement in its July 31 interim report. To the contrary, the commission’s recommendations centered on non-repressive approaches. These include increasing addicted patients’ access to inpatient treatment and medications,enhanced monitoring of opioid prescribing and improved training for health-care providers. Trump’s comments gave short shrift to the non-punitive side of the ledger.
Accompanying the president, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price indicated that the administration would not be adopting the commission’s headline recommendation, either: to declare the opioid epidemic a national emergency. So much for what the panel called its “most urgent” advice.
To be sure, declaring a national emergency might have a rmostly symbolic impact. But it could open some new federal funds for states and permit federal agencies to take otherwise-prohibited steps such as letting Medicaid reimburse for drug treatment in large-scale inpatient facilities. And there is symbolism in rejecting the suggestion, too, in the context of a presidential statement that brushed aside all but one of the panel’s ideas.
What it symbolizes is that Mr. Trump may not fully appreciate the work needed to address what has become one of the worst drug-related scourges in U.S. history.