While it’s good to see Congress and the White House act to strike forcefully at the problem of opioid abuse, we look forward to more details on what policies and programs will be applied to the problem beyond a rhetorical push for more aggressive punishment of drug dealers.
The $3 billion Congress has allocated for anti-opioid programs is a welcome development we hope will translate into a de-escalation of a crisis that claims tens of thousands of lives a year.
Health experts have long recommended policies that would deter those who legitimately acquire prescriptions for narcotic painkillers from becoming hooked and being able to continue obtaining supplies of the drug after dependence sets in. For those who already have fallen prey to addiction, adequate treatment and rehabilitative programs are necessary, and public funding is needed to offer those programs to people who can’t afford them.
Allocations proposed by Congress include $3 billion for treatment, research and prevention and $1 billion in grants to the states for local programs. That money will certainly help ongoing efforts but may not be enough to satisfy the demand for treatment and rehabilitation.
We applaud the allocation of money for local programs, which may be the most effective front in the fight to bring down the rate of overdoses. Evidence exists that, on the state level, prevention and awareness programs are having a beneficial impact. In Utah, the rate of overdoses from prescription painkillers has decreased somewhat in recent years. That is likely due to an escalation of efforts to better educate medical providers and better track pharmacy prescriptions.
While deaths attributed to prescription opioids appear to be tapering, there is evidence of an increase in overdoses tied to heroin and other opioid-based street drugs. The president would address that by brandishing the threat of the death penalty for convicted, high-level traffickers. Constitutional-law experts doubt that promise could easily be kept. The Supreme Court likely would have to determine whether the death penalty could be applied in such cases. That could take years and have no immediate impact on opioid overdoses.
In addition, while calling for capital punishment may sound great on the political stump where crowds react to a strong, “get-tough and take-no-prisoners” approach to the problem, the president has offered no supporting evidence that this would have a meaningful impact on unclogging the pipeline of illegal drugs.5 comments on this story
More effective are efforts to empower local communities to attack the problem at the ground level, including an initiative by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to focus on the impact of the crisis in rural communities. The department will sponsor discussion on how best to address the issue in rural areas, with Utah being one of five states in which that initiative will shortly begin.
The spending package proposed by Congress demonstrates that the issue enjoys bipartisan support. Those who promise forceful action may gain some political advantage, but progress in curbing the abuse of opioids in any form will require more than talk. A conscientious, well-funded and consistent campaign, waged mostly on the local level, is what the problem calls for and what leaders in Washington should be willing to acknowledge and support.