by Jack Brownfield
President Trump is set to propose a new plan to tackle the country’s growing opioid abuse problem, a focus of his 2016 campaign. The proposal contains a range of new policies designed to attack the problem from both the public health and law enforcement angles. That is, Trump hopes to both increase the resources allocated to treating addicts and to crack down on dealers with better policing and harsher sentences. Since the plan is very multifaceted, different elements have drawn support from across the political spectrum.
One of Trump’s most controversial ideas, allowing the death penalty for some drug dealers and traffickers, has been criticized by Democrats and even some of his allies. Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) represents one of the states most influenced by the opioid epidemic and one that Trump carried in 2016 by a margin of 42%. Still, she criticized the death penalty idea, saying that “I don’t see that that’s going to solve the problem.” Others, like Representative Chris Collins (R-NY) have been more supportive. Collins said he was “all in” on expanding capital punishment, including to drug cases, arguing that the U.S. needs a “real punishment” to deter future dealers.
Trump also plans to propose more enforcement-related changes, such as ramping up prosecution and punishment for everyone involved in illegal drugs. Changes include making it easier to invoke mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases and a new Justice Department task force to go after negligent health care facilities. Law enforcement officials have generally welcomed these proposals, while those on the healthcare side have generally opposed them. The two groups are skeptical Trump can address both of their concerns. “There’s a lot of internal division,” acknowledged an administration official. Still, Trump’s enforcement plan does include elements that progressives have long championed, such as screening all federal inmates for opioid addiction when they arrive in prison. Addicts would then be steered towards treatment programs. TalkingDrugs, a progressive drug reform organization, estimated that this change would cut overdose deaths by 12%.
On the healthcare side, Trump plans to change the way the government pays for opioid prescriptions to limit access to the drugs, hoping to reduce prescriptions by one-third within three years. He also plans to ask Congress to make it easier for addicts to pay for hospital care with Medicaid. While these ideas have almost universal support in Congress, some policy experts are worried about their potentially dangerous side effects. Stefan Kertesz, a clinical researcher of addiction at the University of Alabama Birmingham, warned that trying to reduce prescriptions might harm some patients with legitimate medical needs. The Center for Disease Control has advised doctors to stop prescribing opioids as a first option, but Kersetsz argued that this does not mean cutting off the supply to those who still need the drug.
The plan also faces significant hurdles in funding. While many of Trump’s ideas, especially for better healthcare for addiction, have been well-received, they would likely cost billions more than Trump or Congress has budgeted. Most observers consider it unlikely that Congress will significantly increase funding, even after Trump and elected officials from both parties have made solving the opioid crisis a signature part of their campaigns. Still, Trump’s plan contains some elements that most voters and politicians can agree with. Even if the plan as a whole does not become a reality, different parts might be passed by Congress or on the state level.
Jack is a sophomore in the College studying English and Government and writes about domestic social and cultural issues.