How the White House is tackling the opioid epidemic

President Trump declared the nation’s opioid epidemic to be a “public health emergency” in October, promising to combat the health crisis in a number of ways.

His plan, according to Trump’s domestic policy director Andrew Bremberg, includes harsher penalties for drug traffickers and lowering the amount of drugs needed to trigger mandatory minimum sentences for dealers.

It’s important that the full weight of the federal government – with each Cabinet department determining their role in the crisis – is involved in tackling the epidemic, said Tom Coderre, a former official with the Obama administration’s Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

“The opioid crisis is multi-faceted and multi-dimensional. It’s not like there is a secret weapon out there,” Coderre, who was recently hired as a senior adviser to Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo to help combat the opioid crisis, told Fox News.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 115 Americans die daily from opioid-involved deaths. Opioids, including prescriptions and heroin, killed 42,000 people in the U.S. in 2016 – the highest on record.

Trump will officially unveil his plan during a speech in New Hampshire on March 19. Here's what his proposal entails. 

Death penalty

Trump has often mused that certain countries – such as Singapore – have fewer issues with drugs because of the harsh penalties dealers can face if caught. He has argued that a person in the U.S. can receive the death penalty or life in prison for shooting one person, but a drug dealer who potentially kills thousands spend little to no time in jail.

“The only way to solve the drug problem is through toughness,” the president said.

At a meeting at the White House on opioids, Trump said the U.S. needs to “be very strong on penalties.”

“Some countries have a very, very tough penalty — the ultimate penalty. And, by the way, they have much less of a drug problem than we do,” Trump said.

The White House announced on March 18 that it intends to seek the death penalty for certain drug traffickers "where appropriate under the law."

The Justice Department said the federal death penalty is already available for several limited drug-related offenses, including violations of the “drug kingpin” provisions of federal law.

Mandatory minimum sentencing

Trump is planning to ask Congress to pass legislation which would lower the number of drugs needed to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence for drug dealers who knowingly distribute certain illicit opioids, Bremberg told reporters.

Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have already announced plans to introduce legislation “aimed at fighting [the] opioid epidemic,” according to a press release. Their bill would include lowering the amount of fentanyl needed to invoke mandatory minimum sentences in certain distribution cases.

Fentanyl is a high-risk type of opioid used by doctors to treat pain.

“It’s past time the punishment matched the crime when it comes to opioid distribution and trafficking,” Cotton said in a statement.

Graham added, “Increasing these mandatory minimums is well-justified.”

Additional research

Part of Trump’s plan to attack the nationwide crisis is to increase research and development through public-private partnerships between the federal National Institutes of Health and pharmaceutical companies.

With the public health emergency declaration, officials are able to more easily deploy state and federal workers, secure grants for the unemployed and shift funding from certain programs – such as HIV or AIDs programs – to provide substance abuse treatment for certain individuals.

Jessica Hulsey Nickel, president and CEO of the Addiction Policy Forum, praised the declaration in a statement to Fox News.

“Prioritizing this national crisis will bring much needed resources to communities, improve access to services and facilitate better coordination among government agencies. In particular, I am heartened by the decision to bring all federal government agencies to the table to play a unique role,” Nickel said.

Create more awareness

Trump’s plan includes broadening education and awareness as well – something Trump’s commission on combatting the crisis stressed as important.

Last year, in asking Trump to declare a national emergency, a White House commission on opioid abuse said such a declaration “would also awaken every American to this simple fact: if this scourge has not found you or your family yet, without bold action by everyone, it soon will.”

Gary Mendell, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Shatterproof, agreed, saying that the crisis needs more “attention and awareness.”

“People are talking about this more and more, but if the president were to declare this a national emergency, it creates recognition around the country and awareness around the country that this epidemic needs right now,” he said.

Past declarations

In October, Trump declared the crisis a national public health emergency, short of the national state of emergency sought by a presidential commission he put together to study the issue. It was renewed in January. 

HHS has issued public health emergency declarations in the wake of natural disasters as well as the spread of diseases.

The agency issued its first declaration for the Zika virus in Puerto Rico in August 2016. It was last renewed in April 2017.

Public health emergencies were also declared in New York following Hurricane Sandy in November 2012 and in Missouri following a series of storms and tornadoes in May 2011. 

“It took too long to get to where we are today. I think there was thought they could do this without declaring a national emergency,” Coderre said of the declaration. “But people are dying.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Kaitlyn Schallhorn is a Reporter for Fox News. Follow her on Twitter @K_Schallhorn.