By State Representative, Leon D. Young
Here’s a staggering factoid to consider: Drug overdose deaths in 2016 claimed more than 59,000 lives in the United States, according to preliminary data compiled by The New York Times. Although the data is preliminary, the Times’s best estimate is that deaths rose 19 percent over the 52,404 recorded in 2015.
And all evidence suggests the problem has continued to worsen in 2017.
The death count is the latest consequence of an escalating public health crisis: opioid addiction, now made deadlier by an influx of illicitly manufactured fentanyl and similar drugs. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50.
The term opioid is often bandied about in the media, but what exactly are opioids? Opioids are drugs formulated to replicate the pain reducing properties of opium. They include both legal painkillers like morphine, oxycodone, or hydrocodone prescribed by doctors for acute or chronic pain, as well as illegal drugs like heroin or illicitly made fentanyl, a synthetic opioid. The word “opioid” is derived from the word “opium.”
Opioids such as morphine and codeine are naturally derived from opium poppy plants more commonly grown in Asia, Central America and South America. Heroin is an illegal drug synthesized from morphine. Fentanyl is a fully synthetic opioid, originally developed as a powerful anesthetic for surgery.
It is also administered to alleviate severe pain associated with terminal illnesses like cancer. The drug is up to 100 times more powerful than morphine. Just a small dose can be deadly. Illicitly produced fentanyl has been a driving factor in the number of overdose deaths in recent years. Lastly, methadone is another fully synthetic opioid. It is commonly dispensed to recovering heroin addicts to relieve the symptoms of withdrawal.
During the primary campaign last year, Mr. Trump surged to victory in New Hampshire in part on his promise to focus on the opioid crisis, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives and shown little sign of abating. Then, in August following a presidential commission’s recommendations, Trump referred to the opioid crisis as a “national emergency,” and called it “a serious problem the likes of which we have never had.”
But, little had transpired until last week when Trump finally directed the Health and Human Services secretary to declare a “public health emergency” – and not a national emergency. The distinction is far from being just a matter of semantics. In doing so, Mr. Trump fell short of fulfilling his promise in August to declare “a national emergency” on opioids, which would have prompted the rapid allocation of federal funding to address the issue.
To combat the epidemic, the president said the government would produce “really tough, really big, really great advertising” aimed at persuading Americans not to start using opioids in the first place, seeming to hark back to the “Just Say No” antidrug campaign led by Nancy Reagan in the 1980s. This less than adequate response is almost laughable on its face, if not for the sheer gravity of the current epidemic.
Here’s the real deal: Trump is proposing a Band-Aid approach to a problem that requires radical (federal) intervention and massive government funding immediately. Anything less will only exacerbate the mounting death toll from opioid drug crisis.