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COLUMN: Trump finally considers harm reduction to combat opioid epidemic

President Trump officially declared Thursday that the Department of Health and Human Services should treat the national opioid crisis a public health emergency. 

This comes more than two months after he informally called the use of opioids in the United States a “national emergency” but elected not to sign a formal declaration to that effect.

Treating the crisis as a public health emergency will allow Trump to work with Congress to allocate more funding to the treatment and prevention of opioid overdoses. 

If executed properly, this partnership between Trump and policymakers will help make overdose prevention through harm reduction a nonpartisan issue.

The declaration comes as a surprise. Trump originally said he would combat the crisis with a “law and order” approach, but tackling the issue through public health and harm reduction will prove much more effective.

The opioid crisis is a growing problem for Americans. More than 60,000 people died from overdosing in 2016 alone, following a trend that has steadily grown since 1999. 

The U.S. government stood idly by while drug use and mass incarceration ravaged the nation. 

Boasting the highest incarceration rate worldwide – 693 of 100,000 adults as of 2016 – the United States has filled its prisons and jails with drug users and nonviolent criminals. 

The Brennan Center for Justice, a New York University institution, concluded that there was “little public safety rationale” for incarcerating 39 percent of current state and federal inmates. Many of these inmates are serving time for drug use and could be contributing to their communities rather than sitting in a penitentiary.

Even with increased incarceration of drug users, the overdose rate continues to climb.

Trump is finally taking steps to address the opioid crisis the right way: through increased funding and harm reduction methods. 

While it isn’t exactly clear what concrete steps Trump and Congress will agree to take in curbing the overdose rate, declaring the crisis a public health emergency ensures that this conversation will take place.

The Justice Policy Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on criminal justice reform, found that harm reduction is actually more cost effective than incarceration in curbing drug use. Society sees increased return on investment when it invests in rehabilitation rather than incarceration. 

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie leads the President's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. The Commission suggested in late July that Trump declare the crisis a national emergency, but he hasn’t acted until now. 

Despite the delayed response, Christie is pleased with this step toward curbing the epidemic and called it a “bold move.” 

Congressional Democrats are also hopeful that the public health emergency declaration will pave a way toward cheaper prices for Naloxone, a drug used to treat opioid overdoses. 

Ridding the United States of its opioid addiction should not be a partisan issue. Republicans and Democrats should use this state of public health emergency to come together, analyze the data and use the most effective methods available to reduce overdose deaths. 

Harm reduction and rehabilitation do more for addicts — and society — than expensive, hostile incarceration. 

We must give credit where credit is due. Trump has, at least partially, turned away from a "law and order" approach that felt more like a “fire and brimstone” approach. Now comes the wait to see if he follows through.


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