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What Does It Mean to Declare the Opioid Epidemic a ‘National Emergency’?

August 11, 2017
Prescription bottles and pills on a counter.
The United States’ epidemic of opioid abuse has been raging for a decade and a half, with more than a half-million citizens dying from drug overdoses (the majority of them opioid-related) between 2000 and 2015.

The latest  numbers reveal it’s only getting worse. As CNN reports, “New government data show an increase in opioid overdose deaths during the first three quarters of [2016], an indication that efforts to curb the epidemic are not working.”


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This week brought some long-awaited (if sometimes contradictory) discussion of the problem from the federal government, commencing with Monday’s release of an interim report from the Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. “With approximately 142 Americans dying every day, America is enduring a death toll equal to September 11th every three weeks,” read the bipartisan commission’s report, which urged the feds to declare the crisis a national emergency.

That idea was shot down the following day, when Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price suggested such a declaration unnecessary. “We believe that at this point, the resources that we need or the focus that we need to bring to bear to the opioid crises can be addressed without the declaration of an emergency,” said Price at a press briefing following a meeting with President Trump, “although all things are on the table for the president.”


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On Thursday, Trump weighed in, seemingly reversing the position put forth by Price: “The opioid crisis is an emergency, and I am saying, officially, right now, it is an emergency,” said the president from his Bedminster, NJ, golf club. “It’s a national emergency. We’re going to spend a lot of time, a lot of effort, and a lot of money on the opioid crisis.”

With plans to draw up an official declaration allegedly in the works, let’s deal with the basics: What does a formal declaration of a national emergency entail?


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Historically, national emergencies are typically tied to natural disasters. The most recent came in 2009, when President Obama declared a one-year state of national emergency to prepare for the H1N1 influenza virus. “The crucial thing an emergency declaration does,” writes CNN, “is mobilize resources and bring much-needed attention to the problem, especially in getting politicians, leaders and the public on the same page.”

Specifics on the resources mobilized by an emergency declaration come from PBS, which notes that a federal declaration “would allow the administration to remove several barriers to treatment. Under current law, Medicaid funds can’t be used to reimburse inpatient facilities that treat ‘mental diseases,’ including addiction, if they have more than 16 beds.” By removing that barrier, the Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis said, would “immediately open treatment to thousands of Americans in existing facilities in all 50 states.”


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The commission also noted that an official declaration of emergency would “mandate medical education training in opioid prescribing” and establish federal incentives to help addicts access restricted medications like methadone and buprenorphine.

“A presidential proclamation could also trigger some very specific tools for federal and state governments,” reports USA Today, citing the availability of grants from the Public Health Emergencies Fund and the suspension of some of the more restrictive patient privacy provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.

Stay tuned for news on the official declaration. In the meantime, explore the numerous articles linked in this piece, exploring the important roles cannabis could play in combatting the opioid epidemic.

Dave Schmader's Bio Image

Dave Schmader

Dave Schmader is the author of the book "Weed: The User's Guide." Follow him on Twitter @davidschmader

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  • lovingc

    The first thing to do is send Crispy Cream out to sea so he won’t drown in the surf, whales need to be in the sea. Definitely not on a presidential commission.

    • Onebadapple2212

      Haha crispy cream that’s the perfect name for that fat fck. Unfortunately I live in nj and everything about that fupa flying dbag pisses me off. He’s a bully that needs to be knocked out for the stupid things he says. Here in nj I alone know 6 people I grew up with who passed away from opiates and tons of people addicted including myself years ago. He needs to get out of the way so pot is legal here as it will help tremendously

  • Rainey

    So far, the response to the opioid “emergency” has been to cut off chronic pain patients’ access to legal opioid prescriptions. Patients who have been taking opioids for years under their doctor’s supervision are having their prescriptions sharply reduced. We’ve never sold or given away our drugs — we need every pill we get! Now, idiots trying to get high are killing themselves with fentanyl or by stealing Granny’s oxycontin and swallowing the whole damn bottle. And WE are being punished for it! Doctors and pharmacists are so frightened of DEA prosecution they won’t write or fill prescriptions for opioids. The result will be an increase in suicides during the coming year, as people suffering with severe chronic pain learn they can’t take the agony their bodies are putting them through. Baby goes out with bathwater.
    Nobody powerful or “important” gave a damn about overdose deaths when they affected minorities or poor whites, but now it’s the children of wealthy people who are dying, and suddenly opiate overdoses are a “national emergency”.
    Oh, please; sell it somewhere else.

    • E.L. Bl/Du

      I am in agreement. The prescribing practices havent changed in 40 years, what HAS changed, is we give special treatment to ILLEGALS who smuggle te heroin and fake fentanyl into this country, but these “sanctuary” states ALLOW them to go UNPROSECUTED! Reasons” “we dont want them to be afraid of law enforcement” so we let them go and 5 of our children are killed b/c they TARGET our colleges so THEY can get a spot for free, paid for by our tax dollars. This is the culprit, NOT the people in chronic pain. But they are the ones that will suffer for this “crisis” Lets call it what it is, HEROIN CRISIS, not opioid crisis. An ILLEGAL immigration and smuggling crisis. People here ILLEGALLY who have ZERO respect for our laws, our people, and our sacred places. They ALL expect free education, medical, dental, vision, food rent and now a pass from the law. While our tax paying citizens suffer. WOW, we are really blind. Look at ANY police blotter in the paper, METH, HEROIN, ALL of them, but we do NOTHING to stop it. No we have to PUNISH the people in pain who are folliowng the law. RAiny, please write your opinion to the CDC who is limiting the amt Drs are now allowed to prescribe due to all the illegal heroin and fake Fentanyl causing this “crisis” Illegals are costing taz payers 37 BILLION dollars PER YEAR in free services they recieve already.

      • Rainey

        Respectfully disagree. Illegal aliens simply can’t smuggle in the massive quantities of fentanyl and heroin that are responsible for so many overdoses and subsequent deaths. The fentanyl is being manufactured in China and imported into the US via our government mail system and private companies like FedEx and UPS. Who orders it? American citizens, many of whom were born in this country. Fentanyl and heroin are highly profitable, and sellers see no reason why they shouldn’t provide it to those who want it and are willing to pay for it.
        Please, put the blame right where it belongs: On idiots looking for a fun high who don’t know or care about their opiate tolerance levels, not on “illegals” looking for a better life.
        Incidentally, I have written to the CDC. The response was a polite form letter that answered none of my questions but simply thanked me for contacting the CDC and listed all the “good” they do.

        • E.L. Bl/Du

          Rainey, I dont want to get into an arguement with you about this, but I live in a sanctuary city and the drug problem isnt coming in Fed ex by people who “order it” I realize fentanyl is coming from China, but its coming in via the southern border of the US, I have really done allot of research on this topic. In addition, I live in a “legal” marijuana state. The Mexicans who used to grow weed cant make a profit anymore, so they are now growing poppies, and cutting it with the Fake Fentanyl THEY import from China, as it is NOT coming here from China via fed ex or any other LEGAL means. Believe me, these people at this point are not looking for a “fun high”. They are seeking the drug so they do not get “dope sick” and get a batch cut with this fentanyl Jose put in there unkowingly how strong it is, and overdose b/c its 100x more potent. its the ones that are CUTTING it in that are the idiots and dont know HOW to dose it. I wouldnt have a problem with illegals if they were JUST looking for a better life, but they step ALL OVER LEGAL citizens to get it, don’t care if they play by the rules, and hurt people in the process without a conscious about it. We spend over 3.1 BILLION dollars supporting illegals every year. I am tired of passing it out to someone here ILLEGALLY and would rather help the poor kids in OUR country with that money, or get their parents TREATMENT.
          I also wrote to the CDC, and also got NO response. its NOT the people who are in chronic pain SUDDENLY passing out their pills to people. They need EVERY one they get. In the old days, when Heroin cut with Fentany wasnt available, the people that got pain meds for an acute injury just stopped taking the meds when the prescription ran out. Now, they have Jose on the corner telling them they dont have to stop, “I take care of you, ok” and they get to the point where they HAVE to have it or get horribly sick in withdraw. IDK WHERE you got your information that China is sending it to the US via FED EX, but its not correct information. I do however agree that it is a HUGE problem. I just dont see how making people who are legitimately in chronic pain have to be the ones that they aim this campaign at, its NOT them. Its not fair to make these type of debilitating pain patients suffer b/c we cant get a hold of the HEROIN crisis, lets call it what it is.

          • Rainey

            Okay, I won’t argue with you.
            I’d think the solution would be to make testing kits available to everyone, free! Those needing heroin can pick up a testing kit and make sure of the potency and ingredients in their purchase BEFORE buying it. Police have on-site drug tests (sadly, often wildly inaccurate) they can use when questioning a suspect. Why can’t drug users get something similar? (and, hopefully, more accurate)
            Bye bye fentanyl overdose, forget you, deadly hotshot. Those who can’t be bothered… well, they’ve made their choice.
            Sadly, I suspect this would be greeted by authorities with the same enthusiasm they’ve shown for needle exchanges and overdose rescue drugs. Some politicians and “law enforcement” individuals would much rather see drug users die than help them survive. It’s that old Puritan punishment ethic still rearing its ugly head. NOBODY is going to get off drugs until they’re damn well ready to.

          • E.L. Bl/Du

            Rainey, This is a GREAT idea you have here. I know that they made the choice, but after that, its a necessity for them to get their dope so they do not get dope sick, as mentioned earlier. The politicians in our state would rather give HEALTH CARE to the very people smuggling it here and creating this problem than to help the CITIZENS afflicted with this.(their target) Its not just street people, Pilots, constructioin workers, College students, REGULAR people are becoming afflicted the more we think that illegal immigration is OKAY. The problem lies in that not just the smuggling. We are OVERLOOKING the ROOT of the problem. Allowing the smugglers to prevail. When it starts to afflict THEIR children and friends, then maybe they will get the picture. But I doubt it, they reward the law breakers and punish the victims. I agree with you that its a real mess.

    • Tim9lives

      Agreed. Furthermore, it is a “Fentanyl laced heroin crisis,” not an opioid crisis. Most of the deaths are from fentanyl laced heroin. I’ll add, that the heroin is most likely being smuggled in using container cargos. How else ? Especially when one considers that the Sinora Cartel took over Chicago because Chicago has the best infrastructure in the USA. If they set up shop in Chicago, then the drugs are coming in from Canada or its being smuggled using container cargo units. I’ll add, most of the overdoses are from lacing heroin with fentanyl. That’s just deadly.

  • Bryan Cross

    How about getting Doctors (legal drug dealers) to stop turning pain patients into junkies, or maybe even halt fentanyl production? I don’t even get why they produce so much, like oxy wasn’t good enough for people? They had to make something a hundred times stronger? There was already an opiate crisis, gouge big pharma industries for rehab costs imo.

    • Corey Finnegan

      Bryan Cross there are millions of people who suffer from severe, debilitating, relentless pain that my words cannot fittingly describe. To answer your question, yes, there are people who need stronger pain meds than oxy, including fentanyl. My wife is one of them. Since her car accident 2 years ago she suffers unbelievable pain from an incomplete spinal cord injury, which has left her paraplegic in a wheelchair. She needs heavy doses of opioids and valium to truly manage the pain. Of course she’d rather just be using pot, which she often needs in concentrated doses, incl edibles, just to get through the night. Since they began cutting her meds in December, she has suffered to a degree that truly cannot be conceived if you haven’t seen it. She has suffered to a degree that should not be allowed, when we have the tools to prevent it. And we do. But the voices of those in chronic pain are rarely heard in this discussion. From TV news to doctor’s offices, they are viewed with suspicion and dread.

      • CycleAZLindyB

        I have a major anxiety attack every time I walk into my pain clinic for my monthly “med” appointment. I only take one Nucynta ER and one hydrocodone per day for my chronic back pain and now severe fibromyalgia pain. I don’t take much, but what I do take I really need in order to get a few hours of functioning in each day. I am so afraid the doc is going to cut me off one of these days, even though I am compliant and never abuse these drugs. I AM exploring MMJ, but have just started and have no idea what I’m doing. Hopefully, I won’t need the pills and can only use cannabis one of these days. I hear stories every day on my fibromyalgia FB support group of people being cut off from their meds without notice or help with weaning. It’s frightening.

        • Tony Hicks

          CBD in Edible form or capsule helps with pain w/o the “high”. MMJ helps me “smooth-the-ripples”. I am a daily user… I will say that when a new user starts, they may feel paranoid/anxious but that soon fades with a moderate daily/weekly administer