This week, in an effort to combat the current opioid epidemic that has claimed tens of thousands of lives over the better part of the past two decades, President Trump announced that he would be creating an opioid panel led by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Christie brought the issue to the forefront when he was a candidate in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries. Some, however, feel that Trump is not doing enough to address the problem, and they are worried that he could be doing more harm than good.
Says Daniel Raymond, the Harm Reduction Coalition's deputy director of planning and policy: "Are we really going to spend six months reinventing the wheel here at a time when overdose deaths have never been higher? Nobody feels like we can take a wait-and-see approach.” The Harm Reduction Coalition works to end the stigma that those suffering from addiction often face. The organization also advocates for public health reforms.
The sense of urgency that Raymond expresses is understandable. Fatal overdoses now kill more people than the HIV/AIDS epidemic did back in its heyday in the 1980s, with over 33,000 people succumbing to opioid overdoses in 2015 alone.
It is also understandable that folks are still worried that Trump will back out of his decision to fight the epidemic, considering how the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy was on the list of programs that Trump was considering defunding just last month. This program hands out grants to combat the use of drugs, as well as drug trafficking.
Rafael Lemaitre, who worked in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) for over a decade, is not happy with Christie's appointment. He believes that the commission is an unnecessary method of generating positive buzz for the president and that the federal government already has the tools at its disposal that it needs to address the issue "in a smart way"…it just needs to use them.
Says Lemaitre: "There are literally dozens of nonpartisan experts working in the White House today that should be leaned on and supported. There’s already a commission to address the opioid crisis. It’s called the [Office of National Drug Control Policy]." The ONDCP notably made medication-assisted treatment more accessible to those suffering from addiction. This approach is lauded by medical professionals as being the best shot that someone with an addiction to opioids has of beating his or her addiction and remaining drug-free.
The Obama administration has not been free from criticism on this issue either, however. Some felt that Obama was too slow-moving in creating policy that would push the public health agenda forward and mainstream important programs like needle exchanges. The former head of the ONDCP, Michael Botticelli, criticized Obama's efforts in the war on drugs as a "failure."
The ONDCP itself may be in danger as well. The Trump administration has flirted with the idea of dismantling it, and now advocates are worried that this new coalition fronted by Christie would ultimately replace it.