Last week, President Trump launched his Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. While we appreciate the president’s attention to the issue, his first formal action to address substance use leaves us feeling underwhelmed and concerned about the administration’s approach to addiction.
The Opioid Commission is tasked with gathering and reporting on best practices for addressing drug misuse, and making recommendations for action. Sound familiar? The Surgeon General’s report published last November did exactly that. We can’t allow the administration to hide behind this empty gesture – they need to act now to address the problem, based on the non-partisan, comprehensive information and policy recommendations in the Surgeon General’s report. What we need is an immediate investment in community prevention programs, evidence-based treatment and recovery support services.
Also troubling is the apparent over-representation of law enforcement on the Commission. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a former U.S. Attorney, will chair the committee. The member list has not been formally announced, but is expected to include Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, among others. Where is the representation of advocates for people with substance use disorders, leading providers of comprehensive services, the experts at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Surgeon General himself?
In recent years we have made strides in shifting our attitude about substance use, from blaming and incarcerating people for their illness to offering treatment and support instead, but the composition of the Commission raises concerns about the approach the administration plans to take to address drug use.
We’re beginning to see other state and national policies that reflect old attitudes about drug use. Wisconsin’s recent Medicaid waiver proposal includes drug testing certain Medicaid recipients. A Congressional resolution signed by the president on Friday now allows states to drug test any recipients of unemployment benefits.
When we have 91 Americans dying from opioid overdoses every day and 2.3 million people in the criminal justice system, we can’t afford to go back to the failed war on drugs. Not only are these policies ineffective, but they disproportionately affect people of color who are arrested at higher rates and sentenced more severely for the same offenses than their white peers.
Advocates need to remain vigilant and push back against rhetoric that perpetuates blame and policies that use punitive approaches to address substance use. In a “listening session” this week, the president talked about an approach emphasizing “law enforcement and prevention.” We need to urge the administration to act using the approaches proven to work: prevention, treatment and recovery supports.