On Thursday, President Trump is expected to declare a national emergency on the opioid overdose crisis. Trump indicated nearly three months ago in July that he planned to accept a recommendation to declare a national emergency that was made by his bipartisan opioid commission headed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
The commission recommended the declaration as a way to give the federal government additional powers to eliminate regulatory barriers to opioid treatment and free up federal resources for a public health response to this crisis. But there are serious questions as to whether the Trump administration will effectively use an emergency declaration to this end, or will instead use it as an excuse to escalate the war on drugs.
In recent months, President Trump has repeatedly expressed support for “strong law enforcement” approaches to dealing with drug use while saying or doing little to offer a public health response to the crisis. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has pursued a hardline agenda on drug policy, reversing Obama-era reforms to drug sentencing and civil forfeiture practices, and using the opioid overdose crisis as an excuse for harsh immigration policies. Sessions recently referred to the opioid overdose crisis as a “winnable war.” Advocates worry that an emergency declaration could give the Trump administration greater leverage to push Congress for more drug enforcement funding and harsher sentencing laws. Such an approach has already been in place for decades, has proven wholly ineffective at reducing drug use or any drug-related harms, and has had a devastating effect on people across the US, particularly from communities of color.
“President Trump has a long track record of using hardline rhetoric to talk about how his administration should approach drug policy,” said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs with the Drug Policy Alliance. “There’s a danger that this president will use an emergency declaration as an excuse to ratchet up the war on drugs with more funding for locking up more people and harsher sentencing laws,” said Smith.
Evidence-based prevention, treatment, and harm reduction interventions can stem the tide of opioid overdose fatalities. The Drug Policy Alliance has detailed specific policy proposals in this regard in its “Public Health and Safety Plan to Address Problematic Opioid Use and Overdose.” Trumps own bi-partisan opioid commission has also offered many health-centered recommendations. If Trump embraces these recommendations and others, his administration has an opportunity to chart a new course on the overdose crisis and reset its approach to drug policy with an emergency declaration.
“If Trump really wants to stem the tide of opioid overdose deaths, there’s a huge amount that he can and should do on the public health front,” said Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Sticking to the war on drugs playbook will only lead to more overdose deaths and more communities devastated by arrests, convictions, and deportations. It’s time for new policies that are based on facts, health, and compassion.”