Trump changes his mind about the opioid crisis

Saturday , August 12, 2017 - 4:30 AM


Earlier this week, on the same day the federal government released horrifying figures about the continuing rise of opioid overdose deaths in this country, President Donald Trump missed a chance to elevate the problem in announcing he would decline to declare an emergency.

Thankfully, he appears to be coming around. On Thursday, Trump said he was ordering up paperwork for such a declaration. His reversal is the right thing to do, for Americans are living in a national emergency. According to the new federal findings, during the first nine months of last year, deaths from drug overdoses hit a record 19.9 per 100,000 residents, a jump from 16.7 per 100,000 during the same period in 2015. The death rate is on pace to approach 60,000 deaths for 2016.

In Colorado, the good news is that death rates for overdoses of prescription opioids dropped, but heroin overdoses jumped. Our overall overdose rate for all of 2016 was 16.1 per 100,000 residents.

The numbers bolster recommendations from the president’s own bipartisan panel of experts — led by Trump loyalist Chris Christie — on the crisis. They released interim recommendations only days before. The top, most urgent advice? Declare a national emergency.

“With approximately 142 Americans dying every day, America is enduring a death toll equal to Sept. 11 every three weeks,” the commission members wrote. “Your declaration would empower your cabinet to take bold steps and would force Congress to focus on funding and empowering the executive branch even further to deal with this loss of life.”

Aside from the loss of life, the addiction is bankrupting families, fueling crime and wreaking havoc in city centers, like Denver’s. A great equalizer, the epidemic isn’t isolated to just back alleys and parks, however. Opioid addiction, which began due to over-prescribing of legal drugs, has ruined lives in suburban and rural enclaves rich and poor.

We hope Trump stays the course. In declining to declare an emergency Tuesday, the president seemed more interested in attacking President Barack Obama for not doing enough on his watch to prosecute bad actors. Meanwhile, Trump’s Drug Enforcement Administration director wasn’t even present for Trump’s remarks, and his attorney general seems more concerned about marijuana – a drug that isn’t deadly or highly addictive.

Trump’s Health and Human Services secretary says declaring an emergency would be a mostly symbolic gesture. If that’s the case, we wonder what could be the harm. More likely, such a declaration would focus attention and resources on the issue in a useful way, and propel Congress to free up needed money.

Gov. John Hickenlooper noted on NPR this week that Trump’s assurance that his administration was “fully engaged” in dealing with the crisis hasn’t been noticeable in Colorado. The argument in fact collides with the reality that had Trump succeeded in pushing Republicans to cut the Obamacare Medicaid expansion, it would have caused great harm here.

The expanded coverage, Hickenlooper noted, has helped 450,000 residents here gain access to substance abuse treatment.

We get it that Trump is often confused, but this crisis is unlike any the country has seen and the recent figures ought to bring focus. Calling for abstinence and cracking down with criminal prosecutions are strategies that have their place. But the problem is larger than that, and Trump’s turnaround is promising.

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