Bill Clinton Talks Drug War, High Incarceration Rates

By Kelly Burch 04/13/17

"This whole sentencing craze that got going in the '80s was way overdone. We've just got to provide a safer, healthier, better way forward."

Bill Clinton

Former President Bill Clinton spoke openly about the opioid epidemic at a health summit earlier this week—hinting that the War on Drugs popular during his administration may have been over-wrought—and called for a focus on treatment moving forward. 

"I have never seen the feeling that exists today that we overdid this. That this whole sentencing craze that got going in the '80s was way overdone. We've just got to provide a safer, healthier, better way forward," he said

Clinton spoke as part of a panel discussion at the 6th Annual Clinton Health Matters Activation Summit in Little Rock, Arkansas. Clinton was joined by health experts who discussed everything from treatment access to training for the medical community, to better serve people who are addicted to drugs. 

“We really need to have enough people trained and capable of providing care, including primary care doctors,” said Dr. Judith Feinberg from the West Virginia University School of Medicine.

Dr. Richard Rawson, of the University of Vermont, emphasized the fact that treatment works, but that accessing treatment is a massive barrier for many people with substance use disorder. 

“Treating this is less complicated then treating diabetes, and it’s less complicated than treating many types of cardiovascular disease and hypertension,” said Rawson. “They are very effective and they are saving thousands of lives; we just need to get people access to these treatments."

Much of the conference was focused on increasing access to the overdose antidote drug, naloxone. A new program called Adapt Pharma's Narcan Nasal Spray Schools Program—which was announced at the conference—will donate more than 40,000 doses of the spray to nearly 5,000 U.S. colleges and universities. Increasing access to naloxone has become a priority for The Clinton Foundation. 

"When we started the Clinton Health Matters Initiative six years ago, we knew that our country faced urgent health issues and too many barriers to access," the former president said at the summit. "The key to making improvements is to give people real solutions to real problems—and if you hit upon a good solution, then regionalize it, nationalize it, and try to replicate it in more places so more people can benefit. I look forward to coming back next year to see what today's conversations have yielded, because the most important thing is to take all these good ideas and start putting them into action.”

Earlier this year, Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of the former president and former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and also the vice chair of The Clinton Foundation, spoke about access to naloxone as a human issue. 

“[It is] a moral issue—we know now that naloxone has the chance to save thousands of lives,” she wrote in an editorial for the BBC. “No one should die of an opioid overdose in 2017 in America, or anywhere—as in all areas where we know how to prevent such deaths, we have an obligation to save lives and work toward zero.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.