At the end of October, President Donald Trump officially declared the opioid epidemic a "national public health emergency," which would free up some federal funds to tackle the crisis, expand the use of telemedicine to treat substance abuse in rural areas, and spur the creation of a “really big, really great” anti-drug advertising campaign, a la “Just Say No” of the 1980s.
On the surface, the announcement appeared to be Trump making good on his campaign promise to address the national scourge of opioid addiction and overdose deaths. Even that would have been laughably hypocritical, considering the administration’s ongoing attack on the US health care safety net.
But in actuality, the opioid declaration was nothing more than lip service, given the scale of the problem across the country (including in Maine) compared with the paltry resources that such a “public health emergency” designation will make available.
Indeed, while experts estimate that the crisis costs billions of dollars a year, there is just $57,000 in the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Public Health Emergency Fund. Trump’s “plan” doesn’t earmark any additional money to combat the opioid epidemic — but it does stigmatize immigrants, escalate the failed War on Drugs, and avoid cracking down on Big Pharma.
To make matters worse, Trump and his cronies are sticking their heads in the sand when it comes to one potential solution to the public health problem. It’s discouraging but not surprising that the president didn’t mention marijuana once while he was declaring “war” on opioids.
Despite a growing body of evidence that cannabis is associated with lower opioid abuse and mortality, the Trump administration seems set on “placing political ideology above the health and safety of the American public,” as Paul Armentano, Deputy Director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) wrote in an op-ed at The Hill. Decrying the administration’s “canna-bigotry,” Armentano pointed to several studies suggesting that marijuana could “play a potentially valuable role in mitigating this public health emergency.”
Just last month, researchers from the University of North Texas School of Public Health, the University of Florida, and Emory University released their analysis of monthly opioid-related deaths before and after Colorado retailers began selling cannabis to adults. According to their data, published in The American Journal of Public Health, “legalization of cannabis in Colorado was associated with short-term reductions in opioid-related deaths.”
Meanwhile, a comprehensive review from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, published in January, “found evidence to support that patients who were treated with cannabis or cannabinoids were more likely to experience a significant reduction in pain symptoms.” Other recent studies have suggested relationships between medical marijuana programs in states and 1) reduced opioid-related hospitalizations; 2) lower prescription-drug spending; and 3) lower intake of prescription medications in patients.
But in making his big announcement, Trump didn’t talk about funding research into marijuana’s pain-killing properties — an area of scientific research that has been restricted by decades of Reefer Madness. Instead, Trump said he would be working with Big Pharma (i.e., the same pharmaceutical companies that hooked America on opioids in the first place) to develop “non-addictive painkillers.”
Just days ahead of the president’s opioid declaration, US Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) spoke to this issue in testimony before a House subcommittee.
“I appreciate the focus on the opioid crisis that grips every community, to some degree, and affects every state. Especially critical for our veterans, who are twice as likely to die of accidental overdose,” Blumenauer said. “As we’re slowly acknowledging the depths of the opioid crisis, which is good, we seldom acknowledge one of the simplest, most effective solutions: medical marijuana, cannabis.”
With Attorney General Jeff Sessions helping craft US drug policy, that acknowledgement isn’t coming anytime soon. The same day Trump declared the opioid emergency, Sessions was elsewhere in Washington claiming “much of the addiction starts with marijuana.” On top of that, Sessions was recently lambasted by Brookings Institution scholars for “politicizing medical cannabis research.” By doing so, they wrote, “Sessions is standing between the White House and its stated policy goals” on opioids.
And so, the crisis rages on, with the men in charge blocking one of the few potential paths out of the darkness and symbolic declarations standing in for meaningful action.