Ending America’s Addiction Crisis Will Take More Than Words

Donald Trump has admitted our country has a major problem with addiction. Now it’s time for him to ask for help.
03/07/2017 06:10 pm ET Updated Mar 07, 2017
POOL New / Reuters

“Our terrible drug epidemic will slow down and ultimately stop.” – President Donald Trump

In last week’s joint address, President Trump identified tackling and ultimately defeating our country’s struggle with addiction as a major goal of his administration. But what does that really mean? How do we put a stop to the drug epidemic that is decimating communities? Although the road to recovery isn’t necessarily a smooth one, it is possible to decelerate or even completely halt the deaths, crime, and disease related to addiction. Substantial investment in research, continued access to affordable care and insurance plans, and an immense overhaul of the current “gold standard” of substance use disorder treatment could completely erase America’s addiction crisis. The War on Drugs isn’t actually about drugs: it’s about addiction, and if we’re going to win it, we need to help the people who are dying instead of making them wait to find recovery.

In 2015, Mr. Trump said he was “going to take care of everybody,” in reference to universal health care. He went on to say we are going to “save so much money on the other side.” If he was talking about the drug crisis, he was dead-on. Addiction is expensive, and it affects everyone. Currently, the United States spends $484 billion a year on this health issue, more than cancer and diabetes combined. Addiction increases spending in law enforcement. At home, it means lost productivity on the job, contributes to unemployment, and burdens the child welfare system. Crime, hospitalizations, and health care are just some of the costs associated with it. Collaboration between sectors of government that address the negative effects of addiction – including Homeland Security and our intelligence agencies, international relations entities, and the Departments of Education, Labor, Justice, and Health and Human Services – is needed to stop this epidemic.

Does that seem excessive? It’s not. In fact, unless there is a major overhaul across multiple sectors, there is little chance of ending this crisis that’s killing hundreds of Americans every day. We’re ready for a solution – and we’re willing to work together. As evidenced by bipartisan votes of recent legislation and polling of the electorate, no issue unites Americans more than the opioid crisis.

From addressing corruption in big pharma to raising public awareness about addiction as a mental illness, there are many changes to be made. In the medical sector, the President could call for an enforcement of parity laws and hold insurance companies accountable for granting equitable coverage toward behavioral health issues. He should also push for the continued expansion of affordable care for all Americans. Enforcing medical standards for drug treatment and establishing humane standards of care should be as much of a priority as cracking down on unethical treatment programs.

Instead of focusing on addicts as criminals, we must approach addiction as a chronic illness. Comprehensive reduction strategies that avoid shaming addicts and stigmatizing addiction are key. For example, not all people with addiction are criminals: although crime feeds on addiction, it’s far more likely that prescription pill abuse got the ball rolling. Suggesting that drugs “pouring” into the country are responsible for 52,404 deadly drug overdoses is oversimplified and misguided. In fact, the high demand for these substances might even be driving the drug market, the security problems it creates, and internal law enforcement corruption.

Just as addiction has no single identifiable cause, our countermeasures can’t come from just one source. Locking up addicts or telling them to “Just Say No” isn’t the silver bullet. We deserve a deeply critical evaluation of counterproductive criminal justice policies that keep people trapped in cycles of poverty and addiction. The crisis has unfolded as the result of a perfect storm of factors and is by no means an easy fix.

Ultimately, the way we talk about addiction should center on pathology, not policy. The more we can learn about how addiction works, where it comes from, and what exacerbates it, the better chance we have of eradicating it. Without this understanding, no amount of sound policy changes, from criminal justice to expanded healthcare provisions, will end the epidemic. As we implement new, effective policy, we must be empathetic to those who struggle. Recovery is a process, not an overnight matter. As we move forward, it’s imperative that we treat addiction as what it is: a confounding disease that can be beat only by an equal combination of compassion and science.

President Trump’s statement offered a glimpse of real possibility for ending the America’s drug epidemic. We’ve admitted that we have a problem: now, it’s time to ask for help. Solving addiction could be the success that defines this administration. By staying open to hearing from interdisciplinary fields, orchestrating efforts between government agencies, and investing in research and reform, we have a chance to not only stop the addiction crisis, but create a healthier, more productive society.

Every community in America affected by addiction has already taken the first step. We need help. We’re tired of seeing our children, friends, neighbors, and family members suffer. We’re ready to expand our grassroots efforts to the national level and make America’s addiction crisis a thing of the past. We hope this administration will “Just Say Yes” to giving recovery a chance.

Ryan Hampton is an outreach lead and recovery advocate at Facing Addiction, a leading nonprofit dedicated to ending the addiction crisis in the United States.

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