Trump’s Drug Policy Is Destroying Lives

A sudden crackdown on opioids is leaving Americans without care.

American president Donald Trump arrives in Salt Lake City, Utah, December 4, 2017
American president Donald Trump arrives in Salt Lake City, Utah, December 4, 2017 (ANG/Annie Edwards)

Politico reports that President Donald Trump’s crackdown on opioids is backfiring.

Hundreds of patients told the political news website they have been suddenly refused prescriptions for medications they relied on for years — sometimes just to get out of bed in the morning — and have been left to suffer untreated pain on top of withdrawal symptoms.

Many … described being tapered off narcotics too quickly or, worse, turned away by doctors and left to navigate on their own. Some said they coped by using medical marijuana or CBD oil, an extract from marijuana or hemp plants; others turned to illicit street drugs despite the fear of buying fentanyl-laced heroin linked to soaring overdose death numbers. A few … contemplated suicide.

Fear

Trump has set a goal of reducing prescriptions by a third over three years and his administration has stepped up prosecutions of doctors who prescribe inappropriately.

The trouble is defining what inappropriately means.

Many physicians have nevertheless stopped prescribing painkillers or stopped treating chronic pain altogether out of fear of losing their license or even prison time.

Patients are left to suffer.

Betrayal

I’ve argued before that Trump’s instincts on drugs and addiction are all wrong.

Whereas the medical consensus both in- and outside the United States is (finally) that addiction should be treated as a public-health, rather than a law-enforcement, problem, Trump is stuck in the tough-on-drugs mindset of the 1980s and 90s, which only led to mass incarcerations, not a decrease in drug use.

For many Trump voters, this is a betrayal. The places that suffer the worst from opioid addiction — left-behind industrial states like Kentucky and West Virginia — pinned their hopes on him. Trump promised not to cut Medicaid. He promised to “work with” Americans who got inadvertently hooked on opioids and “make them better”. He is breaking those promises.

In addition to putting pressure on doctors, Trump and his Republican Party have proposed to cut funding to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration as well as the Medicaid expansion of his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, which gave some 1.2 million Americans with substance abuse disorders health care for the first time.

Stigma

There is no simple solution to the opioid crisis, which on average claims 142 American lives every day — more than die in car accidents or gun violence.

However, removing the stigma on addiction could go a long way to convincing more Americans to seek help.

Here, too, Trump is doing the opposite.

He argues that a “soft” approach on drugs will never work. He praises Filipino strongman Rodrigo Duterte for executing drug dealers. His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, supports the re-criminalization of medical marijuana on the (false) premise that cannabis is barely less harmful than heroin.

This is not a compassionate drug policy. This is destroying lives.