A Grain Of Saul: The Opioid Emergency Declaration Is A Step Forward, But The White House Got Everything Else Wrong

The administration still doesn't seem to understand how we got here.

A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.  

On Thursday, the White House declared the opioid epidemic ravaging the United States a public health emergency, an admirable step forward amongst a series of costly mistakes the administration continues to make speaking about the crisis.

The announcement came after months of the administration promising to declare the opioid epidemic a national emergency, which would have immediately freed up federal funding for expanding the number of outpatient treatment centers in the United States, a move supported by addiction experts. Instead, the public health emergency declaration allows the federal government to request funding down the road and offers some grant money to go towards fighting opioid use, two worthwhile endeavors that should be applauded. The president also suspended a rule that stopped Medicaid from helping fund treatment centers, a measure that was long overdue and will definitely help states fight this tragic rise of drug abuse. 


That, though, is about where the applauding should stop.

What was most striking about the announcement is what the president himself said would be the strength of his campaign against opioids: "really tough, really big, really great advertising" that teaches kids to not try drugs in the first place. 

"This was an idea that I had, where if we can teach young people not to take drugs," Trump said during the announcement of the public health emergency. "It's really, really easy not to take them."

Kellyanne Conway, a senior advisor to the president, has been outspoken about his plans to battle the opioid epidemic. She seemed to echo Trump's thinking that just saying "no" was going to be their key ingredient to winning this battle: "the best way to stop people from dying from overdoses and drug abuse is by not starting in the first place," she said in an interview on Fox News.

But this is not an original idea, nor is it a sound one. 

The generation being ravaged by the opioid epidemic is the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) generation — the same kids who were subject to hours of "just say no" campaigning throughout elementary and middle school. I would know because I was there. My classmates and I were showered with endless campaigns to resist the urge to try drugs at parties and — clearly — none of them were effective. 

By the time I graduated high school, I had already lost a half-dozen classmates to drug overdoses. In the 8 years since then, dozens more have died from my high school alone, hundreds of others are battling addiction right now, and the county I grew up in has been decimated by the opioid epidemic to a degree few other counties in the United States have experienced. My anecdotal evidence is backed by the science, too. According to The Scientific American, "A meta-analysis (mathematical review) in 2009 of 20 controlled studies… revealed that teens enrolled in the program [D.A.R.E.] were just as likely to use drugs as were those who received no intervention." 

Despite D.A.R.E's popularity, Scientific American concludes, "data indicate that the program does little or nothing to combat substance use in youth."

It's not just that "big" and "tough" advertising campaigns have already been failing for the last 30 years. It's also that campaigns to turn down drugs do nothing for the thousands upon thousands of people who are already addicted, who are already so far past being able to make that first choice.  But the greatest flaw in past campaigns and — since his opioid speeches mostly address heroin — presumably Trump's forthcoming campaigns, is that they are almost exclusively focused street drugs like heroin, marijuana, and cocaine. The D.A.R.E. programs I went through always included a scene at a high school party where a senior asks a younger kid if he wants to try smoking pot. We were taught how to say no and look cool all at once.

But those scenes don't get to the heart of this issue. My classmates and friends aren't dead because they tried smoking pot when they were 16 years old. They are dead because of the drugs doctors prescribed them and their friends, because pain medication like Percocet, Vicodin and Oxycontin are handed out like candy by physicians and surgeons, and because they eventually find their way onto the black market. (As I've reported, it's those prescription drugs that helped start this whole mess — heroin and fentanyl use are just the aftermath of an addict trying to find a cheap high). And, of course, they are dead because there wasn't adequate and readily available treatment centers to help them get clean.

One friend, a recovering addict who has been sober after he was saved with the overdose antidote Naloxone, put it like this: "Education in schools should be a big focus, and kids should be taught about addiction as a disease instead of tired old scare tactics about how drugs kill, which we now know is ridiculously ineffective."

He's right. If we're going to talk about educating our kids, we should educate them with the lessons we've learned in the last few decades: addiction is a disease of the brain. Medical professionals tell us it is not a choice, it's an illness. Medication-based treatment for addiction has been proven to be the most successful. Addiction treatment, though, isn't as readily available as it needs to be — just 11 percent of the 23 million Americans who needed treatment for an alcohol or drug problem in 2012 actually received it. 

We need more access to treatment, more medication-based treatment, and less stigma about the "choice" of being an addict. If President Trump and his administration are serious about tackling this issue — and it seems they are — they should embrace what the experts are telling us. Our country, and the problem at hand, demands it. 

For more, you can follow @Ike_Saul on Twitter.


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