New US Opioid Measures Undermined by Lack of Funding, Personnel

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A series of new measures to fight the US opioid crisis further demonstrates that the White House has more interest in using the issue to score political points than in attacking its roots.

In a November 29 press conference, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a collection of changes to the US government’s approach to the nation’s opioid crisis, which has grown dramatically worse in recent years.

Sessions launched a reorientation of Justice Department resources, creating a new field office of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) overseeing Tennessee, West Virginia and Kentucky, while also obliging each US Attorney’s Office to name a coordinator for anti-opioid efforts. The attorney general also announced $12 million in federal grants for unspecified purposes.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Drug Policy

In addition, Sessions described Kellyanne Conway, a spokesperson for President Donald Trump since his 2016 campaign, as the White House’s new point person for the efforts to crack down on opioid use. Conway’s precise responsibilities remain unclear, and although many media outlets have described her as the new “opioid czar,” the Atlantic points out that moniker may be exaggerating the scope of her mandate.

The most recent announcements follow several prior attempts to rework government policy on the opioid crisis, which was a frequent topic of Trump’s campaign speeches.

In October, President Trump took the mostly symbolic step of declaring a national health emergency stemming from opioid abuse. And in August, Sessions announced the creation of a new opioid fraud investigative unit within the Justice Department to crack down on the illegal perscription opioid market, which has been closely linked to the current crisis.

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The Trump administration’s concern over the opioid epidemic is justified, as the number of Americans using opioids has grown exponentially in recent years, along with the number of fatal overdoses, which are now the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50. However, the administration’s recent pronouncements contrast sharply with the fundamental emptiness of Trump’s rhetoric.

One obvious giveaway is the amount of new money spent on the issue — or rather, the lack thereof. Twelve million dollars is an amount so small that it is hardly worth mentioning at a public event; it represents just over 0.5 percent of the DEA’s $2.1 billion annual budget for 2017, which is itself just a fraction of the government’s overall counternarcotics expenditures. (Sessions did not clarify whether this is new money or just spending redirected from other priorities.)

Conway’s appointment as the “czar” of these efforts is another sign of the hollowness of the Trump administration’s promises. Conway, a pollster by trade best known as a cable news surrogate for Trump, does not appear to have the sort of experience and expertise that would be needed to oversee a massive policy challenge involving complex matters of both law enforcement and public health.

Furthermore, the White House Office for National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) still does not have a director more than a year after Trump’s election. Trump had appointed Tom Marino, a congressman who was a longtime ally of the pharmaceutical giants whose appetite for profits helped construct the foundation of the current crisis. However, following the October publication of an investigation by the Washington Post and 60 Minutes detailing Marino’s industry ties, he withdrew his name from consideration for the post.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Heroin

In addition to a lack of adequate personnel in top policymaking and advisory positions, Trump’s approach to the opioid issue has prioritized enforcement over harm reduction and prevention strategies, like expanding access to addiction treatment programs. International authorities have increasingly called for a shift away from this approach, in favor of “non-punitive” drug control strategies.

Moreover, the administration has complicated cooperation on this issue with Mexico and China, both key international partners in combating the opioid scourge. Trump and his subordinates have not only gone after both nations on trade issues — perennially contentious matters that nonetheless typically exist in a separate realm from drug policy — but specifically on their role in feeding the opioid epidemic. In his October speech declaring the national health emergency, Trump singled out both countries for not cracking down hard enough on illicit opioids. As InSight Crime has previously pointed out, this type of rhetoric only serves to alienate nations whose support the United States needs.

This combination of factors has helped ensure that after a year in office the Trump administration has made virtually no substantive progress in tackling one of the most difficult drug problems the nation has ever witnessed.

Still, Trump has learned that he can score public relations coups with repeated, blustering announcements of reform, as well as by blaming foreign nations for their ostensible responsibility in what is mostly a homegrown drug crisis.

At the same time, good public relations without effective public policy is a fundamentally flawed approach. In order to adequately handle this important, transnational security threat, the Trump administration must dedicate the human and financial resources needed to meaningfully address its causes.

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