HAVING TALKED a good game for months about the nation’s opioid crisis, the Trump administration seems finally on the brink of unveiling a plan that might lend muscle to its repeated promises to tackle an epidemic that killed more than 40,000 Americans in 2016. If, however, the president indulges his instinct to attack the problem mainly with an enforcement sledgehammer — for instance by pressing for the death penalty for drug dealers — he is likely to grab headlines but do little to reverse what has become a national calamity.
The budget deal signed by President Trump last month includes $6 billion over two years to address the crisis, a fraction of what most public-health and addiction experts believe is required. That sum also pales in comparison with estimates of the epidemic’s toll in lives and treasure, for which estimates range from tens to hundreds of billions of dollars annually.
That may be about to change, according to reports on a comprehensive White House blueprint to combat addiction. The plan under discussion evidently features an array of treatment and prevention strategies, some of which are contained in the report of a commission on the crisis appointed by Mr. Trump and chaired by former New Jersey governor Chris Christie (R). To date, few of the commission’s recommendations have been adopted or funded. Now is the time.
The risk is that the administration will take its eye off the ball and embrace draconian enforcement steps that have proved ineffectual here and in other countries. In addition to floating the death penalty idea, Mr. Trump said recently that “the only way to solve the drug problem is through toughness — when you catch a drug dealer, you’ve got to put him away for a long time.”
In fact, longer prison sentences have been shown to be ineffective as a means to combat drug use. A recent report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, reaffirming numerous previous studies, suggests there is no correlation between longer prison terms for drug offenders on the one hand, and drug overdose deaths, illicit drug use or drug arrests on the other. Highlighting one fact from the report’s 50-state survey, it pointed out that “Tennessee imprisons drug offenders at a rate more than three times greater than New Jersey, but the illicit drug use rate in the two states is virtually the same.” States with tougher sentences simply saddle themselves with higher prison costs.
What does work to cut opioid addiction and lethal overdoses is broadening the supply and availability of methadone and similar medications that serve as substitutes that dampen addicts’ cravings and have been proven to save lives. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar has promoted such an approach, but it has yet to be incorporated in a broad strategy backed by federal funding and policy, including for inmates at jails nationwide. That, among other treatments, would amount to a frontal assault on the opioid scourge.