The Opioid Epidemic: Why Trump's Plan Will Not Work

By Chris Heide


The opiate epidemic continues to ravage our country, as more and more Americans succumb to this brutal, fatal, and progressive disease. In 2016 alone, more than 64,000 Americans died from drug related overdoses, which is greater than the number of fatalities from the Iraq and Vietnam Wars combined. Even though opiate addiction has been a problem for years, proper attention to the epidemic has only recently come into fruition.  As with many other societal problems, attention becomes hyper focused when a systemic issue begins to affect white Americans. It’s a sad reality that needs to change.  Public attention should be intently focused on addiction, as it affects everyone on a deeply intimate level.

Trump’s response to this issue, as expected, has been both anticlimactic and underwhelming. According to the Washington Post, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently announced a plan to increase the presence of drug enforcement agents in areas that are most affected by the opiate epidemic. This is problematic. Treating the opiate crisis as a legal and criminal issue, rather than a medical issue, does nothing to effectively combat the issue. Effectively, this approach treats drug abuse like a supply, rather than a demand, problem. If the Trump administration chooses to use increased law enforcement and DEA resources to control the supply of illicit substances, such as fentanyl and heroin, then they will fail to truly help the addicts who are suffering and quell the epidemic.

The real issue here is demand. Trumps failure to address the demand for opiates and other drugs speaks to the root of the problem. Addiction is a medically defined illness. Reducing the supply of opioid medications will do nothing to treat the underlying illness. Instead of continuing to politicize and criminalize a medical condition, Trump’s administration needs to focus its attention of funding additional resources for treatment.

Treatment itself is ridiculously expensive. $10,000 per person is considered relatively inexpensive when it’s comes to detox and inpatient care. While many private insurance companies will pay for treatment, many treatment centers do not accept government provided health insurance plans. In effect, this create a lack of proper resources for individuals who are less economically stable than others.

I am someone who is lucky to have been provided the opportunity to go to treatment. Last month on CNN, I detailed the destructive nature of my drug addiction. Let me be blunt.  My addiction left a slew of legal and potentially criminal wreckage in its wake. If I were not white, and if my parents had not had money, I would have likely ended up in prison, or dead, rather than treatment.  

Trump’s administration is not doing enough. So far, the response has lacked the necessary specificity required of such a massive problem. Funding should be authorized to make treatment available to everyone, regardless of socioeconomic or ethnic background. While addiction knows no prejudice- anyone has the potential to develop the disease, treatment options must be culturally sensitive. What may work for an LGBT individual may be different than effective treatment for an person in the African American community. Safe injection sites need to be federally funded, as well as further funding needs to be allocated to research for developing even more effective treatment modalities.  In addition, all medical providers should receive further training in learning how to help individuals suffering with substance use disorders. The White House says the true cost of the opioid drug epidemic in 2015 was $504 billion, or roughly half a trillion dollars. If the cost of the epidemic is already so high, why not funnel increased funding into both prevention and treatment availability? It would also be smart, yet unlikely, for the DOJ to task someone other than KellyAnne Conway to lead the fight against the opiate epidemic. Perhaps, someone who has an intimate knowledge of the powerful effects of the disease would be a more appropriate czar? Someone who could affect real change.

When addiction is treated merely as a legal problem it creates a culture that serves to perpetuate maladaptive behaviors. When addiction is treated as a legal and moral issue, then behaviors are criminalized, rather than seen as symptom of a disease.  This creates a cycle where addicts are punished for their destructive behaviors, rather than treated for their illness. Controlling the supply of drugs (i.e. through criminalizing drug use and trafficking) merely serves to control the supply of drugs. Criminalization of addiction contributes to the cycle most addicts find themselves in: legally marginalized, unable to find housing, unable to find employment, and limited access to services- all of which lead to recidivism and relapse. What the country needs is more appropriate interventions that interrupt the legal process, getting addicts access to essential services. When the core issues are not addressed, then the problem will never truly be affected and addiction will still remain a stigmatized societal issue. The cost of this stigma is an ever increasing death toll and an endless epidemic.