White House Gives Billions to Fight Opioid Crisis

By Paul Gaita 02/13/18

Drug policy experts worry that the funds will go towards a more law-and-order approach, rather than treatment.

Donald Trump

A new spending agreement will provide $6 billion in funding for prevention and law enforcement efforts to combat the national opioid epidemic.

The deal—announced on February 7 by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and signed into law by President Donald Trump on February 9—was promoted by White House counselor Kellyanne Conway as larger "than we've seen from any administration."

CNN reported that Conway, speaking on its "State of the Union" program on February 11, said that the funding will go to "help the people who are already addicted" but also keep "illicit drugs out of our country [and] communities."

Lawmakers praised the influx of financial support, but drug policy experts have expressed reservations that the funds will go more towards a law-and-order approach, rather than treatment.

The $6 billion in funds was included in a deal on budget caps that prevented the government shutdown on February 9 and provided funds for an array of domestic programs over the next two years, including extended funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), approximately $4 billion towards the Veterans Administration and $2 billion for research at the National Institutes of Health.

The funding allotted for opioids is a sizable increase over previous allotments of $1.4 billion provided by Congress in the 2017 and 2018 fiscal years, and $4.8 million over 10 years that was included in the 21st Century Cures Act in December 2016.

Speaking on "State of the Union," Conway said the funding would be divided between treatment, public education and law enforcement issues regarding the crisis. "We need to tackle all three at once," she stated.

Conway's words echoed that of a White House official who spoke with CNN on February 8, prior to Trump signing the deal. The official said that the administration will not favor enforcement over treatment, adding that 80% of the money already spent on the crisis since Trump took office has gone to treatment. "We are not ruling in or out any place or any approach, except for the approach that brings down the numbers," said the official in regard to statistics regarding opioid-related overdose deaths.

But policy advocates pointed to statements like those made by Trump on February 5 during a speech in Cincinnati, where he said that he had a "different take" on fighting the epidemic than what he described as "blue ribbon committees." In the speech, Trump was quoted by CNN as saying that he believed "you have to get really, really tough, really mean with the drug pushers and the drug dealers."

Such heated statements prompted a response from Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "President Trump and his administration, in many ways, are pushing a more punitive approach," he said. "There has been a lot of rhetoric about making this a law enforcement issue. Favoring enforcement over treatment would be a major misstep, a huge missed opportunity."

Other officials have expressed concerns about the Trump administration placing control of the agenda with Kellyanne Conway and not with the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which lacks a permanent director and official chief of staff—and as of February, was overseen by a staff of three, down from nine in 2017, including a 24-year-old former campaign worker with no policy-making experience, who has since stepped down.

For her part, Conway told CNN that she is "first and foremost on the front line of the opioid crisis," and intends to pursue a balance of breaking the supply of drugs into the country and assisting those with dependency issues.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.