In August, we wrote about President Trump’s promise to declare a national emergency to combat the opioid crisis. And we wondered whether we’d attack the opioids or the people, in the “war on drugs” sense: Will the government lock people away for drug use or will it go after the root causes of opioid addiction and deaths from overdose?
Ultimately, we concluded that the people would be hard to demonize, at risk of alienating Trump’s political base, citing West Virginia’s opioid crisis as an example.
This prediction is starting to bear out.
Trump Did Not Declare a National Disaster
On Oct. 26, 2017, Trump declared a public health emergency – not a national disaster. As CNN points out, the difference between these two types of declarations comes down to scope and funding. In brief, the declaration of a public health emergency does not provide for immediate funding to combat the crisis.
Despite the lack of immediate funding, Trump’s decision does seem to have been the right call, in terms of pulling funding and logistical support from the right sources: When it comes to dealing with national disasters (as opposed to public health), that’s FEMA’s domain, and FEMA is busy dealing with the national disasters of hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
Still, to be effective, the public health declaration requires significant funding by a congress already trying to cut funds from a budget that includes funds for mental health and drug addiction treatment. And just as in the Reagan era of “Just Say No,” Trump believes a strong ad campaign against drugs will make an impact – but we all know how that turned out.
The value of this declaration will be in its execution.
Drug Company Founder Charged with Fraud and Racketeering
The very same day Trump declared a public health emergency, the Associated Press reported federal charges of fraud and racketeering brought against Insys Therapeutics founder John Kapoor. (Insys manufactures opioids.) The allegations involve “kickbacks,” bribing doctors to dole out medication.
What this shows – at least in this particular instance – is that the government may be going after some root causes.
But the People Aren’t Out of the Weeds Yet
Back to CNN’s report, one major consequence of the public health declaration, as opposed to the national disaster declaration, is the apparent flexibility it offers in getting broad operational support.
On this, CNN quotes a former official with Health and Human Services:
“[T]he most beneficial part of having a public health emergency is you really can marshal public support and then you can bring all the resources of the federal government to bear on it, bringing people from all of the agencies to combat the issue.”
Of course, “all of the agencies” would presumably include the DEA, and that agency is known for busting down doors in its War on Drugs.