Obama Administration Failed To Act On Fentanyl Crisis

By Lindsey Weedston 03/21/19

Health experts reportedly urged the administration to declare a public health emergency during the drug's rise in 2016.

Barack Obama

The Obama administration was warned about the spiking rates of fentanyl overdoses in 2016 but took no action, according to a report in The Washington Post.

A group of 11 national health experts pleaded with high-level officials in the administration in an urgent letter to declare a public health emergency in response to the influx of new, extremely potent opioids on the illicit drug market. The letter addressed then-President Obama’s appointed drug czar and the chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“The fentanyl crisis represents an extraordinary public health challenge—and requires an extraordinary public health response,” it read.

The opioid epidemic had been ramping up for years, but new policies cracking down on the over-prescription of drugs like OxyContin and Vicodin could not properly combat the scourge of illegal fentanyl that was being shipped into the country from Mexico and China.

Cities were now contending with mass overdose cases as street heroin became contaminated with fentanyl, making it many times more potent.

The administration declined to act, according to the Post.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 times more powerful than heroin and is largely responsible for the spikes in overdose deaths from 2015 to 2017 that shocked the nation. In 2017, fentanyl was involved in nearly as many overdose deaths as heroin and prescription opioids combined.

While the Obama administration did take some steps to address the increasing threat of opioids in 2016 and early 2017, any news over the dire warnings about the drugs was overshadowed by the unexpected results of the 2016 presidential election.

By this time, fentanyl overdose rates had risen by 800% in the state of Maryland over the space of four years.

In 2017, President Donald Trump declared the long-overdue national health emergency over the still-raging opioid epidemic. However, other than making the declaration, the Trump administration has taken little action on the problem, according to a 2018 report by the Government Accountability Office.

While the CDC has issued new guidelines for prescribing opioid painkillers like OxyContin and increased funding for addiction treatment is beginning to see positive results, local police and hospitals are still struggling to cope with overdose cases caused by fentanyl.

Unfortunately, those hit hardest by fentanyl are those with addiction disorders and chronic pain patients—many of whom turned to heroin as prescription opioids became harder to access as the government cracked down on opioids. The stigma of addiction has stood in the way of many individuals who need treatment. 

Luke J. Nasta, executive director of the largest drug treatment facility on Staten Island, compared it to the AIDS epidemic of the '80s.

“There was a stigma about being gay,” he said. “There is also a stigma about being addicted to drugs. The entire society is suffering and the government can’t seem to get their arms around this epidemic.”

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Lindsey Weedston is a Seattle area writer focused on mental health and addiction, politics, human rights, and various social issues. Her work has appeared in The Establishment, Ravishly, ThinkProgress, Little Things, Yes! Magazine, and others. You can find her daily writings at NotSorryFeminism.com. Twitter: https://twitter.com/LindseyWeedston