President Trump’s decision to declare our nation’s opioid crisis a national public health emergency is a long overdue step that should give state and local governments more flexibility and resources to address the epidemic, but whether it will have any real impact on the worsening crisis remains to be seen. For those of us struggling to keep opioid addicted loved ones alive, and for the tens of thousands of Americans who have had to bury their sons, daughters, husbands, wives, sisters and brothers, it’s tough to view Trump’s move as more than just another political promise geared more for publicity than real progress.
Melania Trump and the president struck all the right chords during their announcement, which was similar to President and Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug crusade of the ‘80s. They noted that no parts of our country have been spared and that supporting our local community leaders was the key to overcoming this crisis, even mentioning a couple of them by name. President Trump personalized the issue by sharing his brother’s struggles, and genuinely seemed to understand the devastation this epidemic is causing in families throughout America, urging the “love and support of our neighbors.” He promised to direct more grant money to reduce both supply and demand, provide treatment options for addicts, and to develop non-addictive painkillers. He vowed that we will defeat and overcome addiction, and that it would take years to do so.
While the message was on point and welcome, whether it will trigger meaningful change is unclear. After all, we’ve been here before with unfulfilled promises by federal and state officials that have yet to make a dent in a problem claiming over 90 American lives each day. We watched for more than a decade as lawmakers and regulators – flush with Big Pharma political contributions – turned a blind eye while OxyContin and similar addictive painkillers rose to prominence, earning billions for drug companies. We witnessed what happened when officials finally limited access to pharmaceutical opioids by shutting down pill mills and restricting access through electronic prescription monitoring. The changes simply pushed the problem into the streets, where addicts shifted to heroin or copycat pills laced with Fentanyl and other deadly chemicals.
When the federal government finally brought the issue into the light with the highly-touted task force created by President Obama in March 2016, we even allowed ourselves a small measure of hope that something meaningful might finally happen. But just a month later, Obama signed into law the Patient Access Act, designed and pushed through Congress by Big Pharma’s powerful lobby, essentially stripping the DEA of enforcement powers to address the crisis. The law effectively neutered DEA efforts to bring the bad actors – overprescribing doctors, pill distributors and the pharmaceutical manufacturers themselves – to justice for creating and fueling the epidemic. Not surprisingly, with things back to business as usual, death counts have spiraled higher.
For over eight years we’ve lived through the hell of having a child addicted to opioids, who despite more than a dozen rehabs, jail time, and two resuscitations from death by overdose, continues to struggle to stay clean for more than several months at a time.
So, forgive me for not getting too excited about another political announcement to help solve a problem with no solution in sight. For over eight years we’ve lived through the hell of having a child addicted to opioids, who despite more than a dozen rehabs, jail time, and two resuscitations from death by overdose, continues to struggle to stay clean for more than several months at a time. Like countless other parents, we’ve ridden the rollercoaster of detox, rehab, sobriety and relapse for far too long to hang much hope on a press conference, great speech and official declaration.
When our son first disappeared as a 16 year old, we had no clue he had become ensnared in the web of opioid addiction. Unlike marijuana or alcohol, which can often be detected by scent, or by red or glassy eyes or slurred speech, there were initially no signs of his use. By now the market was flooded with prescription pain pills, marketed as non-addictive due to their time-release formulation. But as kids seeking short-term escape from their teenage angst soon discovered, crushing the pills into powder they could smoke, snort or inject neutralized the time release, providing the full dose at once. In a relatively short period of time, many teens such as our son became hooked.
Pill mills staffed by unscrupulous doctors sprung up in states like Florida to fuel the rapidly increasing demand, and the opioid epidemic soon began spreading throughout the nation. By the time government officials got around to taking action, tens of thousands of teens, young adults and others had become addicted, and their cravings didn’t end once the prescription pills became harder to obtain. Street drug dealers gladly picked up the slack and heroin, generally cheaper and now easier to obtain than pharmaceutical pills, replaced Oxys as the drug of choice for many addicts. Sadly, the new heroin plague operated largely in the shadows, with very little public, media or government attention. Only those on the front lines, first responders such as the police, EMTs and emergency room doctors, recognized the extent of the growing problem. Unlike earlier heroin crises, which were often portrayed as an inner-city problem by ‘70s era movies and television shows, the new epidemic cut across all socioeconomic groups and was as prevalent in suburbs and small towns as in cities.
Although the crisis has now been dragged into the light, there are few signs that it is abating. CDC statistics show that overdose deaths continue to climb. Opioid overdoses have now surpassed auto accidents, which had held the number one spot for over two decades, as the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S. And while many first responders are now armed with the anti-overdose antidote Naloxone, stabilizing death rates in some areas, this is really just a short-term band aid on a very complicated problem.
The fact that our son is still alive and presently functioning well makes us among the lucky ones, even though we’ve certainly learned that we cannot control what tomorrow may bring. For others who haven’t been as fortunate, Trump’s move comes too little too late. It is impossible to know what might have been had the opioid crisis been addressed by previous administrations, but what is known is that there is much work to do and there are no easy answers. Anything that allows state and local officials more leeway to address a crisis that is ravaging their states and communities is a positive step and for that we are thankful to Trump’s call. Let’s hope that his decision rises above the rhetoric to help fuel real, life-saving change.