Aubrey Gemignani

U.S. News


The Opioid Crisis: The Need for Oval Office Leadership

On a frozen December night, an Intensive Care Unit bustled with doctors and police officers as a young man, the son of a Lieutenant in my police department, exhaled his last breath. He began taking prescription opioid pain relievers six months earlier for a sport-related injury. An ambitious college student, he lost an uphill battle against a powerful narcotic. His case shows no community is exempt from the pain of opioid addiction. Overdoses killed 66,000 in 2017 alone. Long before the emergency room, we need strong leaders who bring together healthcare and law enforcement professionals to combat the opioid crisis.

Americans are easily hooked to opioids by plentiful prescriptions. Many turn to powerful heroin and fentanyl substitutes when pills run out. Prescription control programs are limiting initial addictions but thousands of Americans are still struggling with existing addictions. They sit in limbo between a broken healthcare system and the use of overdose-reversing Naloxone. This is an unacceptable state of public health in America. We need to rehabilitate addicts, not resuscitate them. We need to arrest illicit opioid suppliers, not users. We need a president who understands how to stop this crisis.

So far, the record is mixed. The White House recognized the opioid crisis as a public health emergency last October and held an awareness rally in March, yet President Trump is reluctant to appoint an Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) Director. Kellyanne Conway and Jared Kushner cannot replace the know-how of experienced medical and public policy professionals as crisis leaders. Current funding is not enough to fight the epidemic, yet Trump is proposing to defund ONDCP by 95% for the second year in a row. At a time when the nation is most in need, Trump is downgrading America’s key policy weapon against the opioid crisis.

The ONDCP director connects Oval Office drug policy with the needs of main street America and local governments. The director puts force behind good ideas with major federal grants. Funding is ear-marked to combat the drug trade in recognized high-trafficking regions and produce drug prevention messages in vulnerable communities. Without ONDCP leadership, these programs will fail. ONDCP programs supporting the front line fight against opioids should be improved, not eliminated.

This crisis requires government agencies to work on two major issues; saving lives at the moment of an overdose and fighting addiction. Police officers, firefighters, and even librarians are putting Naloxone to good use, saving lives. Sometimes the same life, over and over again. Yet the last line of defense is no substitute for the first: fighting addiction. An experienced ONDCP director is necessary to advise the president and promote health policies that identify addicts at risk, that fund rehabilitation, and foster prevention.

The ONDCP develops sound drug prevention and control policy, recognizing that prison is not the solution. As the previous director, Michael Botticelli, emphasized on “60 Minutes,” the United States “can’t arrest and incarcerate addiction out of people.” A strong director can lead common-sense public policy initiatives like needle exchange programs. Needle exchanges decrease the possession of intravenous needles in public, reducing arrests and incarceration. These programs also curtail public health issues compounded by contaminated needles, including HIV/AIDS infections. Exchanges scale down expensive and ineffective incarcerations and bolster healthier communities.

The ONDCP didn’t prevent the opioid crisis, misidentifying early intervention opportunities, but it can help to stop the crisis. The office should eliminate its “War on Drugs” era mandate to oppose any marijuana legalization. A strong director can utilize the office’s unique ability to connect local communities with the White House to implement sound policies and combat opioids.

Unified public health and law enforcement under strong leadership can make a difference. Shining a light on the opioid crisis from the White House can bring Americans out of the shadow of addiction, saving tens of thousands of lives. The Office of National Drug Control Policy can implement rehabilitation and prevention policies that will build strong, healthy, and resilient communities.