Trump Wants to Fight the Opioid Crisis With More Drug War

At an event Donald Trump had billed as a “major briefing” on the opioid crisis gripping America, the president on Tuesday stressed that “strong, strong law enforcement” was vital and rebuffed an official call to declare a national emergency.

Some had expected Trump to to declare such an emergency after his opioids commission force described this move in recent days as the “first and more urgent recommendation”.

Instead, Trump’s prepared remarks focused on enforcement stopping the international influx of illicit drugs and alluded to the Mexican border.

“We’re also working with law enforcement officers to protect innocent citizens from drug dealers that poison our communities,” Trump said. “Strong law enforcement is absolutely vital to having a drug-free society.

“We’re also very, very tough on the southern border where much of this comes in, and we’re talking to China, where certain forms of manmade drug comes in and it is bad,” he said. The president was presumably referring to fentanyl, a synthetic opioid. The drug was nearly unheard of on the illegal market in the United States until recently.

The rate of drug overdose deaths quadrupled between 1999 and 2014 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fueled largely by widely available prescription painkillers marketed as having a low risk for addiction. The overdose death toll in 2016 is believed to have topped 59,000, more than peak deaths from car crash deaths, HIV or firearms.

A surge in painkiller prescriptions has created a parallel rise in abuse and overdose. In 2014, 2 million Americans were believed to be addicted to prescription painkillers, with Vicodin and Oxycontin among the leading opioids involved in an overdose. Three out of four heroin users previously used prescription opioids. Heroin is now predominantly supplied by Mexican cartels.

Trump emphasized the administration’s efforts to stop the flow of drugs over the Mexican-American border, but did not mention pharmaceutical companies. Several state and local jurisdictions have sued pharmaceutical companies for the way companies marketed opioids.

“We’re being very, very strong on our southern border – and I would say the likes of which this country certainly has never seen that kind of strength,” said Trump.

Trump’s remarks were made at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf resort alongside the first lady, Melania Trump. The president has been on a 17-day “working vacation” in the state.

The US health secretary, Tom Price, who has in the past questioned the value of science-based opioid treatment, said the federal government is “working together on a comprehensive strategy”, which would be presented to the president in the “near future”.

Price was repeatedly asked later by reporters why the president was not declaring a national emergency. Price said: “The president certainly believes that it is, that we will treat it as an emergency – and it is an emergency. When you have the capacity of Yankee Stadium or Dodger Stadium dying every single year in this nation, that’s a crisis that has to be given incredible attention, and the president is giving it that attention.”

Later, Price added: “Most national emergencies that have been declared in the area of public health emergency have been focused on a specific area, a time-limited problem – either an infectious disease or a specific threat to public health. The two most recent that come to mind are the Zika outbreak and Hurricane Sandy. So we believe that at this point, 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 – although all things are on the table for the president.”

To date, the largest health-related proposals from Trump and congressional Republicans have been to gut Medicaid, a government-run health program for the poor, and “let Obamacare fail”. Both would have undercut Americans’ ability to seek treatment for opioid addiction. Republican efforts to reform healthcare failed in July.

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