How the Opioid Epidemic is Driving Major Federal Drug Reforms

In the final days of the Obama administration, with abuse of prescription opioid drugs and heroin on an alarming rise, a clear picture is beginning to emerge of a federal government open to more drug policy reform than any in recent memory.

At the top of the list is the fiscal year 2017 budget requested by Obama’s Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), often known as the nation’s “drug czar.” Established by the Reagan-era Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, the Office has long served as a rubber-stamp clearinghouse for unlimited funds for the world’s most militarized drug cartel (the DEA) and other law enforcement agencies.

No longer. Since the years of Obama’s first term in office, the president’s budget has quietly and steadily increased funds for addiction treatment and prevention, and with its request for fiscal year 2017 has shifted funds away from law enforcement; now, for the first time in US federal history, requested funding for such compassionate efforts has exceeded the same figure for law enforcement: $15.8 billion vs. $15.3 billion. This shift has resulted from moderate but significant cuts to the DEA and other law enforcement agencies (between 5-8% compared to the previous year), with the savings earmarked for vital, evidence-based programs like Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT, with double the funding of last year) and access to the fast-acting overdose prevention drug, naloxone. Also receiving increased funding are efforts to treat addiction in prison inmates and parolees and to find housing for the homeless — programs proven through experience to work better at combatting drug addiction than any carceral approach.

The DEA doesn’t fare so well. Already smarting from the administration’s indefinite suspension of the “Equitable Sharing” program — an Orwellian phrase signifying “legalized stealing” — the maverick agency must make do with funding levels holding steady from FY2016, totaling at the still-unconscionable figure of $2.5 billion. And they’re the lucky ones; the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security and the broader Department of Justice all received cuts of over $100 million, while total levels of “supply reduction” efforts have been rolled back to 2011 levels.

Nor is the office of the President the only federal branch of government eyeing new approaches to an growing crisis. Last week, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren sent a letter to the Centers for Disease Control urging the agency to continue its efforts informing doctors on best practices for prescribing opioids while exploring new options, including the use of medical marijuana as a tool to stem overdoses nationwide. The idea is nothing new — medical marijuana has been used to treat opioid addiction in the US since the late 19th century — but the proposal is remarkable coming from a high-profile senator like Ms. Warren.

There is a certain elegant, if tragic, bookending of history at work here. Almost exactly a century ago, a public health crisis fueled by drug addiction gave rise to the first federal drug prohibition, the Harrison Act of 1914. If my reading of the tea leaves proves correct, a similar crisis may now be percolating toward its end. But it’s a terrible shame that it has taken this many ruined and lost lives for our country to finally come to its senses.


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