September 4th, 2017

Is the Opioid Addiction Epidemic a National Emergency?

My focus this week is on a non-event – the absence of a formal declaration of a national emergency in response to the toll being taken by the spread of opioid addiction. Here is a timeline of relevant events:

  • March 29: The President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis was established to “study ways to combat and treat the scourge of drug abuse, addiction, and the opioid crisis.”
  • July 31: The Commission presented its draft interim report making nine thoughtful recommendations with an emphasis on treatment expansion. Specifically: “The first and most urgent recommendation of this Commission is direct and completely within your control. Declare a national emergency under either the Public Health Service Act or the Stafford Act.”
  • August 1: The initial public response from President Trump and HHS Secretary Price was to express concern about the opioid problem but doubt about the appropriateness of declaring a national emergency.
  • August 10: President Trump verbally declares a national emergency. “The opioid crisis is an emergency, and I’m saying officially, right now… It’s a national emergency.”

For a national emergency to actually be in effect, however, formal action needs to be taken. As of this date, there has been none. Some disagreement exists about the impact of this non-event. Some point to the potential benefits of administrative and financial support for a problem that continues to escalate despite years of efforts to address it. Others see a national emergency declaration as a relatively meaningless “publicity stunt.” Other voices warn that such a move could actually be counterproductive if it were used to increase law enforcement priorities instead of treatment, which is the current focus of the DOJ.

Meanwhile, there has been no letup in prevention and treatment efforts across the country. Six states, including Maryland, have formally declared emergencies at a state level. For now, responses on a state by state level is the most reliable remedy until the ambiguity at a Federal government level is resolved.

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