Trump Declares Opioid Health Emergency; Sessions Blames Cannabis

President Donald Trump speaks during an event to declare the opioid crisis a national public health emergency in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017, in Washington. First Lady Melania Trump listens at left. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

President Donald Trump on Thursday declared the opioid crisis a nationwide public health emergency — a step that won’t bring new dollars to fight a scourge that kills nearly 100 Americans a day, but will expand access to medical services in rural areas, among other changes.

“This epidemic is a national health emergency,” Trump said in a speech at the White House, where he bemoaned a crisis he said had spared no segment of American society.

“As Americans we cannot allow this to continue,” he said.

“If we can teach young people, and people generally, not to start, it's really, really easy not to take 'em.”
President Donald Trump

Administration officials have made clear that the declaration, which lasts for 90 days and can be renewed, comes with no dedicated dollars. But they said it will allow them to use existing money to better fight the crisis. Officials also said they would urge Congress, during end-of-the year budget negotiations, to add new cash to a public health emergency fund that Congress hasn’t replenished for years.

The Public Health Emergency Fund currently contains just $57,000, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, a negligible amount. Officials would not disclose how much they were seeking.

 

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Sessions Blames Cannabis

Meanwhile, across town at a forum hosted by the Heritage Foundation, Attorney General Jeff Sessions pinned the blame on cannabis and advised Americans to heed the advice Nancy Reagan gave in the 1980s. Americans, he said, should “just say no” to drugs.  

“I do think this whole country needs to not be so lackadaisical about drugs,” Sessions said. “When you talk to police chiefs, consistently they say much of the addiction starts with marijuana. It’s not a harmless drug.”

“We’ve got to to reestablish, first, a view that you should just say no,” he said. “People should say no to drug use.”

Buzzfeed’s Dominic Holden reported on Sessions’s Heritage Foundation speech, which was scheduled to focus on Constitutional law. Holden pointed out that numerous studies found that the ‘Just Say No’ programs of the 1980s were abysmal failures. Holden writes:

Exposure to abstinence-based drug programs of the era such as D.A.R.E. — which also promoted the notion that students should simply say no — have been abandoned by many school districts amid reports the curriculum failed to reduce drug initiation or use.

A 1994 study by the Research Triangle Institute, which was funded in part by the Justice Department, found that the program had little to no impact on drug use. And in 2011, the National Institute of Justice rated D.A.R.E. as having “no effects,” adding that there was “no statistically significant impact on drug use or attitude towards drug” for students involved.

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Pelosi: All Talk, No Action

Critics of the White House policy complained that today’s action by Trump consisted of no action at all. 

Leading up to the announcement, Trump had said he wanted to give his administration the “power to do things that you can't do right now.”

“How can you say it’s an emergency if we’re not going to put a new nickel in it?” said Dr. Joseph Parks, medical director of the nonprofit National Council for Behavioral Health, which advocates for addiction treatment providers. “As far as moving the money around,” he added, “that’s like robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi also was critical, calling the new declaration “words without the money.”

Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said that Trump “continued talking about criminal justice answers to a public health problem, even though the war on drugs is itself a major factor contributing to the overdose crisis.” 

The President,Sánchez-Moreno added, “had a chance to do something meaningful to help stem the tide of overdose deaths in the country; including by pushing for greater access to naloxone and adopting other health-based recommendations from his own opioid commission. Instead, he is condemning even more people to death, imprisonment, and deportation in the name of his war on drugs.”

‘Nothing Desirable About Drugs’

Trump’s audience Thursday included parents who have lost children to drug overdoses, people who have struggled with addiction, and first responders whose have used overdose reversal drugs to save lives. The President also echoed Sessions’s back-to-the-80s advice: 

“The fact is, if we can teach young people, and people generally, not to start, it’s really, really easy not to take them,” the president said of drug use, after detailing his brother’s struggles with addiction. “And I think that’s going to end up being our most important thing. Really tough, really big, really great advertising. So we get to people before they start so they don’t have to go through the problems of what people are going through.”

“There is nothing desirable about drugs,” Trump added later. “They’re bad.”

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There’s an Ad Campaign?

Trump also spoke personally about his own family’s experience with addiction: His older brother, Fred Jr., died after struggling with alcoholism. It’s the reason the president does not drink.

Trump described his brother as a “great guy, best looking guy,” with a personality “much better than mine”

“But he had a problem, he had a problem with alcohol,” the president said. “I learned because of Fred.”

Trump said he hoped a massive advertising campaign, which sounded reminiscent of the 1980s “Just Say No” campaign, might have a similar impact.

“If we can teach young people, and people generally, not to start, it’s really, really easy not to take ’em,” he said.

Candidate Trump: Opioid Crisis a Priority

Leading up to the announcement, Trump had said he wanted to give his administration the “power to do things that you can’t do right now.” As a candidate, he had pledged to make fighting addiction a priority, and pressed the issue in some of the states hardest hit.

“When I won the New Hampshire primary, I promised the people of New Hampshire that I would stop drugs from pouring into your communities. I am now doubling down on that promise, and can guarantee you we will not only stop the drugs from pouring in, but we will help all of those people so seriously addicted get the assistance they need to unchain themselves,” Trump told a crowd in Maine weeks before last November’s election.

Once in office, Trump assembled a commission, led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, to study the problem. The commission’s interim report argued an emergency declaration would free additional money and resources, but some in Trump’s administration disagreed.

Chris Christie: This Is ‘Bold Action’

Christie, in a statement, said Trump was taking “bold action” that shows “an unprecedented commitment to fighting this epidemic and placing the weight of the presidency behind saving lives across the country.”

Officials said the administration had considered a bolder emergency declaration, under the Stafford Act, which is typically used for natural disasters like hurricanes. But they decided that measure was better suited to more short-term, location-specific crises than the opioid problem. Drug overdoses of all kinds kill an estimated 142 Americans every day.

As a result of the public health emergency declaration, officials will be able to expand access to telemedicine services, include substance abuse treatment for people living in rural and remote areas. Officials will also be able to more easily deploy state and federal workers, secure Department of Labor grants for the unemployed, and shift funding for HIV and AIDs programs to provide more substance abuse treatment for people already eligible for those programs.

Obamacare Medicaid Pays for Treatment

Trump also directed other departments and agencies to exercise their own available emergency authorities to address the crisis.

But Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), said the effort falls far short of what is needed and will diverts staff and resources from other vital public health initiatives.

“Families in Connecticut suffering from the opioid epidemic deserve better than half measures and empty rhetoric offered seemingly as an afterthought,” he said in a statement. He argued, “An emergency of this magnitude must be met with sustained, robust funding and comprehensive treatment programs.”

Democrats also criticize Trump’s efforts to repeal and replace the “Obamacare” health law. Its Medicaid expansion has been crucial in confronting the opioid epidemic.

Adopted by 31 states, the Medicaid expansion provides coverage to low-income adults previously not eligible. Many are in their 20s and 30s, a demographic hit hard by the epidemic. Medicaid pays for detox and long-term treatment.

Sessions: ‘Do Our Best’ To Enforce Laws

Also today, Attorney General Jeff Sessions went on Hugh Hewitt’s conservative talk radio show to discuss a number of issues. Cannabis, of course, came up:

Hugh Hewitt: Let me turn to marijuana, Mr. Attorney General. A lot of states are just simply breaking the law. And a lot of money is being made and banked. One RICO prosecution of one producer and the banks that service them would shut this all down. Is such a prosecution going to happen?

Jeff Sessions: I don’t know that one prosecution would be quite as effective as that, but we, I do not believe that we should, I do not believe there’s any argument, because a state legalized marijuana that the federal law against marijuana is no longer in existence. I do believe that the federal laws clearly are in effect in all 50 states. And we will do our best to enforce the laws as we’re required to do so.

HH: But one prosecution that invokes a supremacy clause against one large dope manufacturing concern, and follows the money as it normally would in any drug operation and seizes it, would shut, would chill all of this. But I haven’t seen one in nine months, yet. Is one coming?

JS: Really analyze all those cases, and I can’t comment on the existence of an investigation at this time, Hugh, you know that, so, but I hear you. You’re making a suggestion. I hear it.

HH: I’m lobbying.

JS: (laughing) You’re lobbying.

Although a growing body of research suggests that medical marijuana is a powerful tool in preventing opioid addiction, lowering opioid dosages, and helping opioid-addicted patients move off the powerful painkillers, there was no mention of cannabis at today’s White House event.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.