The Trump administration said it will seek stiffer penalties against drug dealers — including the death penalty where appropriate under current law — and it wants the number of prescriptions for powerful painkillers to be cut by one-third nationwide as part of a broad effort to combat the opioid crisis.
Administration officials said Sunday that the measures are part of a three-pronged approach to fighting the opioid epidemic, which killed tens of thousands of people in 2016. The White House said it aims to reduce the demand for opioids by slowing overprescribing, cutting off the supply of illicit drugs and helping those who are addicted.
“The opioid crisis is viewed by us at the White House as a nonpartisan problem searching for a bipartisan solution,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said.
The White House said it wants people who deal fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that has caused deaths to skyrocket nationwide, to be prosecuted more aggressively. The administration had considered making trafficking large quantities of fentanyl a capital crime, because tiny amounts can kill many people, but it said Sunday that the Justice Department will seek capital punishment for drug traffickers under current federal law.
The law allows for the death penalty to be applied in four types of drug-related cases, according to the Death Penalty Information Center: murder committed during a drug-related drive-by shooting, murder committed with the use of a firearm during a drug-trafficking crime, murder related to drug trafficking and murder of a law enforcement officer that relates to drugs.
The administration is looking for new ways to crack down on fentanyl traffickers, calling for Congress to reduce the threshold needed to impose mandatory-minimum sentences on people who are convicted of dealing fentanyl and other powerful opioids that can kill people in trace amounts. It also is calling for a more aggressive policing of the Internet, where fentanyl is often purchased, and mail, where it is shipped from countries including China.
The administration’s increased focus on additional punitive measures has alarmed some who say states and municipalities have already increased arrests and prosecutions.
“The idea that we can ratchet up punishment and penalties of various sorts to address the supply is based on exactly zero evidence of the probability that this will work,” said Leo Beletsky, a professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University.
The White House wants to sharply reduce the number of painkillers that are prescribed nationwide, aiming to slash opioid prescriptions by one-third over three years. It also wants to tighten the number of opioid prescriptions that can be reimbursed by Medicaid as a way to curb overprescribing.
In addition, the administration wants to create a national prescription-drug monitoring system so suspicious prescriptions can be flagged. Each state operates its own, and a few states have data-sharing agreements.
The administration wants to test all federal inmates for opioid addiction and provide options for treatment when inmates complete their sentences and reenter society.
The plan also calls for putting more naloxone, a drug that can reverse opioid overdoses, in the hands of more first responders. Municipalities have been struggling to pay for the drug, and fentanyl and other powerful opioids have meant that first responders must use more of it to reverse overdoses.
The administration also wants to expand the use of medicated assisted treatment, where those who are addicted to opioids are given medication under a doctor’s supervision that helps them wean off the drugs.
Several U.S. cities have said they want to open the nation’s first facilities where people are allowed to consume drugs under medical supervision, which is illegal under federal law. The White House said it does not support such facilities because they have not seen “clear and convincing evidence” that they work.
President Trump declared the opioid crisis a nationwide public health emergency, a designation that still stands. Many of the policies announced Sunday stem from a commission Trump convened last year. It released its recommendations in November. It is unclear how the proposals will be funded. The administration said it is negotiating with Congress on specific allocations.
Bertha K. Madras, a professor of psychobiology at Harvard Medical School and member of the president’s commission, said she is happy with the White House’s recommendations. She says that reducing the opioid supply by a third will give a tangible benchmark and that a national prescription-drug monitoring program can help reduce overprescribing. “I’m very optimistic and happy,” she said.
The administration’s proposals come amid a flurry of activity on opioids in Washington. The acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration will testify before Congress on Tuesday about how the agency has handled the opioid epidemic, and the House Energy and Commerce Committee will consider 25 opioid-related bills.
Trump is scheduled to outline his plan during a speech Monday at Manchester Community College in New Hampshire. The state has one of the highest fentanyl overdose rates in the country.
His visit is expected to include a stop by the Manchester Central Fire Station, which is part of a Safe Station initiative to offer the city’s firehouses as safe places for drug users who don’t know where else to turn. When a person enters a fire station, vital signs are checked and, if necessary, the individual is sent to a hospital. If in stable condition, the person is connected with recovery and support services. The program has helped more than 3,000 people since it began in May 2016. It is being overhauled, however, because the treatment facility the city partnered with closed because it was in financial straits.
First lady Melania Trump and Conway, who has played a pivotal role in developing the administration’s approach to the opioid crisis, are among those scheduled to accompany the president.
The visit will be Trump’s first to New Hampshire — home of the nation’s first presidential primaries — since his election in 2016. But a senior administration official told reporters the trip is unrelated to Trump’s reelection plans.
Rather, the official said, Trump is coming to the Granite State — which he called a “drug-infested den” during a phone call with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto last year — because it has been among the hardest hit by the opioid crisis. The official also noted that Democratic officeholders have been invited to participate in Trump’s visit.
John Wagner in New Hampshire contributed to this report.