A National Public Health Emergency–Trump’s Rhetorical Response to the Opioid Epidemic and Addiction

In 2016 alone, 59,000 United States citizens died from an opioid-related drug overdose. Today, statistics indicate that around 90 Americans die each day from an opioid overdose. These alarmingly high rates recently sparked the national dialogue on solving the “deadliest drug crisis in American History.”

Recommending a Nation Public Health Emergency

This past Thursday, President Trump recommended the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declare a national public health emergency in response to the opioid epidemic. This statement is just one facet of Trump’s response to the national drug crisis. Prioritizing drug enforcement and treatment as one of his key campaign promises, Trump’s recent declaration on the crisis reallocates existing government funding to expand access to treatment programs for mental health and substance abuse in rural areas and makes it easier for the Department of Health and Human services to make temporary appointments of skilled workers for responding to the epidemic. The declaration was met with much criticism–declaring a “national emergency” instead would have allocated additional funds to address the crisis. Trump’s declaration will last for 90 days after which it can be extended.

What Happens Next

Although Mr. Trump’s recent action indicates a rehabilitative and treatment focus on addiction moving forward, his ideas about drug enforcement are not so clear-cut. Even in declaring the epidemic a national public health emergency, Trump maintains that fighting addiction contains a moral dimension. In his speech last Thursday, Mr. Trump described “families ripped apart” by addiction and the need to “liberate our communities from this scourge [opiate addiction].” For Mr. Trump, opioid addiction is not just a threat to public health, but also to the moral integrity of American families and communities.

In the same speech, Trump took on Reagan’s “Just Say No” stance to solving addiction claiming, “The best way to prevent drug addiction and overdose is to prevent people from abusing drugs in the first place. If they don’t start, they won’t have a problem.”

Tough on Drugs or Not?

From the statements in speeches, it is unclear whether or not Mr. Trump’s policy recommendations will take a tough-on-drugs stance when it comes to enforcement. Local communities and rural areas impacted by the epidemic have already set precedent on a treatment-first approach to addressing addiction. Gloucester Police Department in Massachusetts was the first in the country to establish a “help not handcuffs” policy that offers treatment, not arrest for individuals who come to the police department seeking treatment for opiate addiction. Despite offering more access to treatment, Gloucester has yet to see the reduction in drug use they desire.

For now, the national public health emergency declaration will provide national attention to an issue that’s shaped rural American life for the past decade. Ultimately, a solution to the crisis will require sensitive policy making that caters to the individual economic and social needs of the neighborhoods where the crisis is most prominent.