President Trump on the Opioid Crisis in America: Is It a National Emergency?

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Just days ago, on September 15, 2017, President Trump officially proclaimed this week to be Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week. From September 17 through September 23, 2017, he has asked us to not only recognize the opioid crisis in America, but also to reaffirm our commitment to helping those that have been affected by opioid and heroin abuse. We are asked to remember the loved ones lost, to stand by those in recovery, to facilitate help where it’s needed, and to raise awareness of this devastating epidemic. The President stated,

“Too many families know the enduring personal, emotional, and financial harm caused by prescription opioid and heroin addiction.  To the men and women who are currently seeking or receiving treatment and to those who are in recovery:  We stand with you, we pray for you, and we are working every single day to help you.  As a Nation, we will come together to save lives and end this crisis.”

Trump describes the opioid epidemic in America a “genuine crisis,” and it is no wonder why. Nearly 100 Americans, on average, die each day from opioid overdoses. And according to the CDC, nearly half of these overdoses involve a prescription opioid. Opioids, even when coming from a prescription bottle, are not always safe. But in any form, they do pose great risk for addiction. According to national studies, nearly two million Americans either abused or were dependent on prescription opioid painkillers in the year 2014. This number continues to grow. Preliminary data suggests that 2017 is expected to be a record-breaking year for opioid abuse and overdoses in America.

Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, also recognized the alarming opioid crisis in America. In fact, he was the first to declare Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week in 2016, with a similar message to Americans:

“Too often, we expect people struggling with substance use disorders to self-diagnose and seek treatment. And although we have made great strides in helping more Americans access care, far too many still lack appropriate, evidence-based treatment. This week, we reaffirm our commitment to raising awareness about this disease and supporting prevention and treatment programs. Let us ensure everyone with an opioid use disorder can embark on the road to recovery, and together, let us begin to turn the tide of this epidemic.”

There is no doubt that the opioid crisis in America is critical, or that it is a top priority on the minds and on the “to-do” lists of the Trump Administration. So much in fact, that just last month, President Trump revealed he was preparing to officially declare it a national emergency. This official declaration, however, is still undergoing an “expedited legal review,” according to a White House spokesman.

While Trump has called the opioid crisis in America a national emergency in dialogue on multiple occasions, this official declaration will require formal documentation. And it is still unclear as to when or if this documentation will go through. National emergencies are typically made for natural disasters, acts of terrorism and violence, and to freeze the assets of foreign nationals. A nationwide public health issue like the opioid crisis would be a new one for the books (the most comparable being Obama’s emergency declaration of the swine flu epidemic back in 2009). It could also mean changes to certain national policies, including:

  • Removing the restrictions on which doctors can prescribe methadone and buprenorphine, two drugs often used to treat opioid addiction
  • Allowing for the widespread dispensing of naloxone, the antidote drug for opioid overdose
  • Giving federal disaster relief funds and other means of aid to the cities and states most affected by opioid overdoses
  • Waiving any current federal restrictions relating to Medicaid and substance abuse treatment

So far, six states – Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Virginia – have already declared statewide emergencies for the opioid crisis. Doing so has led to increased access to naloxone, more federal grants for inpatient drug treatment services, and improved reporting of the overdose epidemic.

There is no doubt that the opioid crisis in America is a national emergency. Its effects are not waning – they are still sweeping the states and the lives of tens of thousands of Americans. Hurricane Katrina was declared a national emergency. The 9/11 attacks were declared a national emergency. And yet, the number of people who died from opiate overdoses in 2015 alone far surpass the number of those who died in the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina combined. Will the President make his declaration official? This is still to be determined.

Dr. Cece McNamara Spitznas, a senior science policy adviser, is quoted in a recent article from CBS News. She explains that passing this formal declaration will require a lot of eyes from a lot of specialists, as a crisis such as this have not been declared a national emergency before. The powers of a national emergency are great, but will need to be assessed from a legal perspective to see what exactly can be done now. She explains, "I think we're in that phase of looking at [the opioid crisis] and leaving no stone unturned on what is it that we can possibly do."

President Trump expects to have more news for us this fall, and will present findings on how the Federal Government can most effectively address the opioid crisis. According to this week’s press release, the Administration will use these findings to inform a whole-of-government emergency response plan.

As much as a national emergency declaration would raise awareness of the opioid crisis in America, as much as it would facilitate access to opioid addiction treatment, it is important for us to remember that longer term solutions are still needed. A national emergency is short-term in nature. A true defeat of the opioid crisis in America would require a much longer-term shift in the way we perceive drug addiction.

Opioid addiction is chronic. It is not a choice nor a crime, but rather, a disease of the brain. It requires long-term treatment from a professional addiction treatment facility. It requires longstanding support from loved ones, friends, and larger communities. Similarly, recovery requires a lasting commitment from the individual, to stay sober and live sober, as well as the ones who support her or him.

As educators, parents, as brothers and sisters and treatment professionals, we can also help to provide longer-term solutions for those battling opioid addiction. We can work towards reducing the stigma surrounding drug abuse and addiction. We can educate others about this chronic disease and the dangers of prescription painkillers. We can also help our loved ones get the treatment they deserve. We can make a difference in their lives, both now, during Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week, and beyond.

If you or someone you love is battling an opioid addiction, please do not hesitate to call Turnbridge’s young adult drug rehab center at 877-581-1793.