Despite promises, Trump dithers on opioid crisis

FILE-- President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting regarding the opioid crisis, at his Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., Aug. 8, 2017. TrumpÕs ad-libbed threat toward North Korea at the meeting reflects an evolving and still unsettled approach to one of the most dangerous hot spots in the world as Trump and his team debate diplomatic, economic and military options. (Al Drago/The New York Times)
Al Drago/New York Times/File
President Trump (here with Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price) spoke Aug. 8 during a meeting on the opioid crisis.

President Trump needs more urgency in this emergency.

Standing at the entrance of his Bedminster, N.J., golf club last month, Trump said he would declare the opioid crisis “a national emergency,” adding, “We’re going to spend a lot of time, a lot of effort, and a lot of money” on an epidemic ravaging communities across the country.

“We’re going to draw it up and we’re going to make it a national emergency,” Trump said vaguely. “It is a serious problem, the likes of which we have never had.”


Trump’s actions don’t reflect this issue’s gravity. A month later, he has yet to officially declare as a national emergency a crisis that kills someone in this country every 16 minutes. Since he claimed he and his people would “draw it up,” more than 4,200 people have died from opioid overdoses.

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Some Trump diehards may argue that the president has been preoccupied (as much as he can be preoccupied with anything other than himself) with the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida, respectively. Yet since his still-unfulfilled opioid crisis promise, Trump has found time to pardon racist former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio; threaten with deportation undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children; and move to ban transgender men and women from serving in the military.

And he has tweeted. A lot.

Beyond imperiling millions of people they irrationally dislike and eroding President Obama’s policies, Trump does nothing to benefit his supporters with these unnecessary decisions. He could benefit them by officially declaring the opioid crisis a national emergency.

No community has been left untouched, but it’s in the heart of what political pundits call “Trump Country” where this epidemic has taken corrosive root. Of the top 15 states with the highest rates of opioid deaths, Trump won 10 of them. While Trump brands Muslims, transgender people, and unauthorized immigrants as threats to America’s safety, few dangers loom as monstrously as opioids. Trump supporters are so engrossed with demonizing difference that they aren’t holding the president accountable for throwing the might of his office at a scourge devouring their husbands and wives, sons and daughters, and friends and neighbors.


Now the leading cause of death for Americans under age 50, drug overdoses killed more than 59,000 people last year.

In July, Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis submitted a report recommending that he officially prioritize this fight as a national emergency. Either under the Public Health Service Act or the Stafford Act, which provides federal disaster relief and emergency assistance, Trump could make it easier for addicts to seek treatment through Medicare and Medicaid, expand opioid substitution programs, and work to lower prices on expensive overdose-reversing drugs such as Narcan.

According to the commission report, about 142 people a day die from opioids, equaling the death toll on Sept. 11 every three weeks. An official declaration from Trump, it says, “would also awaken every American to this simple fact: if this scourge has not found you or your family yet, without bold action by everyone, it soon will.” We’re still waiting for Trump to do anything. This week, 10 Democratic senators, including Edward Markey of Massachusetts, sent a letter to Trump stating that his delay “causes us to question your commitment to ending the opioid use disorder and overdose crisis.”

As president, Trump has been most adept at instilling fear. Declaring a national emergency doesn’t have the hollow bravado of demanding a border wall or barring Muslim grandmothers from entering this country. In the past, federal intervention meant the mass incarceration of African-Americans and Latinos for nonviolent drug offenses. That cannot happen again. Battling a drug crisis of any magnitude demands vision, purpose, and compassion — all of which Trump sorely lacks. If there’s a plan, he needs to unveil it; meanwhile, as Trump dithers, people die, families mourn, and communities buckle under the weight of addiction and the agony of its government’s inexplicable inaction.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham