Dealing With America's Opioid Addiction

President Trump recently formed a task force to deal with the opioid epidemic that is sweeping the nation. Among its members are Governor Chris Christie, who favors an emphasis on treatment for those affected by the drugs, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who prefers an emphasis on prison or jail for people who have abused these substances. The split between these two prominent Republicans suggests a hazy outlook for the task force. Who knows what will result from it?

In the meantime, many areas of the country – including many that voted for Trump – are locked in a grim battle with addiction, which has ripped apart families in states such as New Hampshire and Ohio. During the recent campaign, parents crying over lost children, and images of people overdosing in cars, became disturbingly common. Opioids killed more than 33,000 Americans in 2015 – a number that continues to rise. Opioid addiction is now the number-one cause of accidental death in this country, and may well be a major cause of the decline in life expectancy, for the first time, among middle-aged whites.

The economic implications remain enormous as well. Some estimate that it has already cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

Three issues are central in dealing with the problem: prevention, treatment, and saving lives.

On the prevention side: Although securing the border would help, many of these opioids – including the deadly fentanyl – are arriving from China via the U.S. Postal Service. An international treaty set forth by the UN prohibits any carrier that transports international shipments from opening a package until it arrives at its destination. (Thanks, UN.)

In recent years, limits on the prescription of pain medications have somewhat eased the rate of increase in opioid-related deaths. For example, Massachusetts governor (and 2017 Hamilton commencement speaker) Charlie Baker signed a bill that limits the duration of opioid prescriptions to one week. Since many addicts start on such pain medications, this law is a good start. Other states have followed suit with similar laws, but more must be done to fight the epidemic.  

Expanding access to treatment is important in mitigating America’s opioid addiction as well. Unfortunately, some health care providers are reluctant to provide suboxone (or Buprenorphine) to their addicted patients. Although clinical studies have shown that this medication helps addicts stay in treatment, many have had trouble finding access to it.

Finally, reviving the economy, especially in states – such as Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky – that have faced so much of this tragic problem, will help too. People are less likely to abuse these drugs, and more likely to kick the habit, if they have jobs, intact families (over which the government has no control), purposeful lives, and strong support systems.  

In addition, private philanthropy is helping. Billionaire private equity investor John Grayken and his family, for example, donated $25 million to create a Center for Addiction Medicine. Hopefully, such generosity will continue until a larger, government-funded program to combat opioid abuse is implemented.