After years of rhetoric from both parties, the Obama administration is finally making plans to combat America’s opioid addiction crisis. The official White House statement mentions new programs that will focus on treatment and prevention, rather than punishment and prosecution.
This comes at a time when deaths from heroin, prescription painkillers, and other forms of opioid addiction are at record highs, particularly in states such as New Hampshire and West Virginia. More than two million Americans suffer from heroin addiction, and nearly half a million struggle with prescription opioids. The number of heroin overdose deaths has hugely increased in the past 20 years, while the number of deaths from prescription opioids has tripled. Meanwhile, the number of opioid prescriptions is soaring. Around 75 million opioids were prescribed in 1991; more than 200 million are now prescribed each year.
The Obama administration’s solution
According to the announcement, the new plan will allocate more than a billion dollars towards expanding opioid treatment programs across the country. It will make it easier for Americans suffering from addiction diseases to receive care under government programs such as Medicaid, and will expand access to lifesaving overdose medications such naxalone. The program will also create educational programs aimed at reducing the over-prescription of painkillers.
The administration will also create a special task force specifically aimed at fighting the opioid addiction crisis. This will include more traditional, tough on crime style solutions, such as a DEA program that focuses on blocking the online purchase of opioids. Whether these programs will integrate with the treatment-first approach remains to be seen.
A new turn in the war against opioid addiction?
The announcement is a small change in a much needed series of policy turns required to undo the so-called tough on crime drug stances created by Republicans in the 80s, and continued by the Clinton administration through the 90s. There has been a turn in public opinion recently, with even Republicans such as Chris Christie arguing that the U.S. must refocus on providing treatment to the millions of Americans struggling with addiction diseases.
Only time will tell how these decisions affect the Obama legacy—whether the program is a toothless show of goodwill, or a genuine move to change the way our government treats those who need it most.