It sometimes feels like Americans are lagging behind in the fight against drug addiction. We are not by far the first country to encounter an opioid crisis. In fact, overdose epidemics routinely pop up across the globe. We sometimes fail to notice them because we focus so strongly on what affects our own personal sphere. But we also hear less about them because, occasionally, they resolve themselves quickly. Meanwhile, our own crisis rages on without any apparent end in sight. Fortunately, this might change with Trump’s plan to declare a state of emergency on opiate addiction.
Whether formally declared or not, one could argue that the opioid crisis already constitutes a state of emergency. Jessica Nickel, President of the Addiction Policy Forum, stated as much in a June address to the Presidential Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. She told Chris Christie and the rest of the commission on June 16:
“Declare the crisis a Federal Emergency. This declaration would allow governors to act in the same way they do in the event of a natural disaster—frees up funds, cuts red tape, breaks down the silos in the bureaucracy, moves funding more quickly to help communities and families in need.”
These points address some of the major issues currently facing legislators. While many lawmakers have formulated plans for addressing the opioid epidemic, these plans generally require funding. Unfortunately, this means that even major victories such as the passing of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) tend to fall flat. Passing a bill to advance treatment means very little if we lack the money to actually pursue the course of action outlined within the legislation. Declaring a state of emergency might provide a quick solution to this issue. Now, it appears that President Trump intends to do just that.
Plans to Declare State of Emergency
A little over a month after Nickel spoke to the commission, they released an agenda to combat the overdose epidemic. They first noted the extent of the issue, with some very grave statistics. As reported by Forbes:
“Among other things, the commission noted that between 1999 and 2015, the number of opioid overdose deaths exceeded the population of Atlanta and that the number of powerful pain meds distributed in the U.S. has quadrupled during that time, despite no real increase in the pain that Americans are reporting. Addressed to the president, the interim report also points out, ‘With approximately 142 Americans dying every day, America is enduring a death toll equal to September 11th every three weeks.’”
They outlined a number of approaches to the issue, many of which CARA already provides. But they also advised that Trump declare a national state of emergency, which would allow for easier access to funding and a quick response through FEMA.
At the time of the report, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price claimed no need for such a declaration. In his words:
“We believe that at this point that the resources that we need or the focus that we need to bring to bear to the opioid crisis at this point can be addressed without the declaration of an emergency.”
Price noted that the possibility of a declaration still existed. Trump, however, made a statement offering longer sentences for criminal offenders. He also suggested an educational approach, focusing on prevention by informing youths of the dangers regarding drug abuse. Some members of the press took issue with this approach.
Before long, however, Trump changed his tune. On August 10, he stated in a security briefing:
“The opioid crisis is an emergency, and I’m saying officially right now it is an emergency. It’s a national emergency.”
While this statement falls short of a formal declaration, Trump did not stop there. He assured the press that he intended to pursue formal procedures to declare a state of emergency on the drug epidemic.
“We’re going to draw it up and we’re going to make it a national emergency. It is a serious problem, the likes of which we have never had. You know, when I was growing up, they had the LSD and they had certain generations of drugs. There’s never been anything like what’s happened to this country over the last four or five years.”
Some might see this declaration as little more than a ploy to enhance optics. A public relations stunt with little real weight. But that depends on what happens next. With proper follow-up, a national state of emergency could pose very tangible benefits in the fight against addiction. In fact, similar measures already demonstrate success at the state level.
How This Could Benefit Treatment
The national state of emergency would break some new ground in procuring federal funding for treatment and prevention. But six states have already pursued similar measures—Arizona, Alaska, Florida, Maryland, Virginia and Massachusetts. As reported by STAT, each of these states reached various levels of success.
“In Arizona, a June emergency declaration allowed officials to tap a public health emergency fund for additional resources. The state has since trained 1,000 law enforcement officers how to use naloxone and improved their tracking so they get daily reports of overdoses and cases of babies born dependent on opioids, instead of relying on numbers that are six to 18 months old.”
Alaska declared a 30-day state of emergency that helped coordinate response to overdoses in their state. In 2014, Massachusetts decreased prescription drug abuse by 24% with a mandatory monitoring program. States like Virginia succeeded in raising public awareness by declaring their state of emergency right before Thanksgiving. This made it a common topic of discussion at the dinner table when families got together for the holidays.
Securing any of these changes at the national level would impact our nation’s ability to combat the drug epidemic. Furthermore, a national state of emergency would increase access to federal funding for treatment. We encounter this issue frequently, as legislation often finds itself underfunded. Budgetary concerns take a long time to address in Washington, and spark a great deal of congressional debate. This stretches out the negotiation process, and large sums often fail to receive authorization. With a little less red tape, we could see this issue put to rest.
A state of emergency would not only increase funding for treatment programs, but potentially the quality of the programs themselves. STAT notes:
“A federal declaration might also enable the Trump administration to send public health officials or other federal personnel to local and state agencies overwhelmed by whatever crisis has struck—something that providers in particular say is badly needed.”
Louise Reese, who heads up the West Virginia Primary Care Association, elaborates:
“If there was one thing that could help West Virginia get out of this situation, it would be some sort of program that would…get more providers into West Virginia. Whether that’s some sort of bonus or expanded loan repayment program, we just really have a significant shortage.”
The possibilities almost appear endless. But as with most issues involving our federal government, some still approach the issue with caution. Because, as stated above, the success of declaring a state of emergency depends on the actions taken thereafter. And an emergency declaration may allow for actions that not everyone would find helpful.
Are There Any Downsides?
While the pros likely outweigh the cons in this case, the cons still merit discussion. For instance, as suggested by the Huffington Post, public health emergencies enable the government to take a number of drastic measures. This includes the commandeering of private property, as well as the suspension of civil liberties. Such measures, if taken, would punish drug users rather than attempt to get them the help they need. On the heels of Trump’s statement regarding harsher sentences, some believe this type of action would likely result from declaring a state of emergency.
Grant Smith, current deputy director of the Drug Policy Alliance, voices skepticism. For Smith, a state of emergency would result in missteps all too familiar with those impacted by the war on drugs.
“Would this administration use a declaration of a national emergency to further an agenda that places at its center health-based solutions, or would it then turn around and say, we have an emergency, we need draconian legislation like sentencing laws, or crackdowns on people who use or misuse opioids? The latter would be more in line with how the administration has handled its drug policy to date, more than the former.”
Many Americans already languish in jail due to minimum mandatory sentencing laws. Some of these laws no longer exist, yet the prisoners affected by them still find themselves without clemency.
Granted, not all citizens see this as a downside. Those who lack sympathy for drug users see it as little more than due consequence. But those who see addiction as something more than a bad life choice fear the potential for the government to enact policies that would prevent addicts from seeking help.
No one necessarily believes that lawbreakers should receive no consequences whatsoever. The question, however, centers on whether we will effectively temper these consequences with proper care. If a national state of emergency is to accomplish any good, it must be accompanied by a balanced plan of action. Only then will it become the force for change that we need.
The Future of Addicts in America
As of this writing, we still await a formal declaration. The opioid crisis presents a state of emergency in our hearts and minds, but still necessitates proper documentation. Until our administration produces the requisite paperwork, they cannot take federal action as proposed by the commission. And even once Trump signs an emergency declaration, a long and arduous struggle looms ahead.
For one thing, declaring a state of emergency raises a number of questions. How long will it last? Do we declare a state of emergency for a set amount of time, or until we consider the problem solved? Even then, what do we consider a solution? Naturally, we cannot expect to eliminate addiction altogether. If we don’t set a goal for the progress we wish to achieve, we could find ourselves in an ongoing state of emergency with no end in sight.
We certainly face some struggles ahead, with many questions that need answering. Nonetheless, Trump’s decision to declare a national state of emergency could mean great things for addiction treatment nationwide. All great changes must be taken in steps. For now, we may breathe a sigh of relief that progress may linger just on the other side of the horizon. We, and the rest of our fellows in recovery, should bask in the warmth of this new light that shines on our struggle, and do what we can to ensure that some good comes of this first step toward relief from a crisis that has pervaded our nation’s addict population for far too long.