US President Donald Trump pledged to ramp up enforcement efforts against the opioid crisis gripping the nation, but the long-awaited announcement on a strategy to tackle the deadly epidemic may not attack the root of the problem.
On August 8, Trump vowed to "win" the fight against the opioid crisis that is tormenting the country, according to a White House press release.
"I'm confident that by working with our healthcare and law enforcement experts, we will fight this deadly epidemic and the United States will win," he said.
Trump promised to increase law enforcement efforts to help "rapidly" raise the number of federal prosecutions, which the president said have been declining in recent years. Trump went on to say that strong law enforcement is "absolutely vital to having a drug free society."
US law enforcement concerns have grown recently as Mexico's production of heroin has surged along with US demand for the drug, which has ignited a battle between Mexican cartels for control of the market.
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"At the end of 2016, there were 23 percent fewer [prosecutions] than in 2011," Trump said. "We're not letting it go by. The average sentence length for a convicted federal drug offender decreased 20 percent from 2009 to 2016."
The Trump administration has made other efforts to address the opioid problem. On August 2, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the creation of a new opioid task force, and in March, Trump signed an executive order that created a research body dedicated to studying ways to combat and treat the opioid crisis. The presidential commission has since urged Trump to declare the opioid crisis a national emergency in its first interim report.
Trump's speech comes on the heels of a new study from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (AJPM) that suggests the severity of the opioid crisis may have beeen underestimated.
Using data from drug overdose death records and other demographic information, the study found that opioid- and heroin-related mortality rates nationally were 24 percent and 22 percent greater than what was originally reported, respectively. Public data on the opioid epidemic is scarce and often inaccurate to varying degrees.
Nonetheless, Trump stated that, "We've got a tremendous team of experts and people that want to beat this horrible situation that's happened to our country -- and we will."
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Like countless administrations before him, Trump is planning to use a heavy-handed law enforcement approach to drug consumption. His references to drug offenders suggest that there will be an emphasis on the trafficking, dealing and consumption of illegal substances.
This approach fails to take into account the fact that the majority of overdoses come from legal, not illegal, opioids and that the current crisis was generated by questionable and sometimes illegal behavior on the part of the pharmaceutical industry, which pushed opioid painkillers on huge segments of the public despite warnings of their addictive potential. Users who lost the ability to access the legal drugs often turned to black market alternatives like heroin and, to a lesser extent, fentanyl, feeding the growth of organized crime.
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The key to bringing down America's addiction to prescription painkillers is curbing the pharmaceutical companies and medical practitioners who have marketed opioid products deceptively and over-prescribed them. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the majority of all opioid overdose deaths in the United States involve prescription opioids. In the last 16 years, more than 183,000 people have died from a drug overdose related to prescription opioids, primarily methadone, oxycodone (OxyContin) and hydrocodone (Vicodin).
Positive steps such as state and federal level legal actions against both companies and individuals are growing, and the DEA has proposed plans to reduce the amount of controlled substances to be manufactured in the United States in 2018. But some experts have voiced concerns that an approach too heavily focused on law enforcement -- whether that means locking up big pharma executives or high-level heroin dealers -- could risk sidelining other important aspects of addressing the opioid crisis, such as treatment and prevention programs for people suffering from addiction.