Editorial: Practical policies needed on opioids

The Detroit News

President Donald Trump recently declared the opioid crisis a national emergency. That, it is. Opioid deaths now take more than 100 Americans every day.

Though details of what an emergency status will allow government agencies to do are still to come, it will likely open up states and towns to more federal funding, and likely streamline response mechanisms.

That’s good, given the scope and urgency of this epidemic. But in tackling the opioid crisis, the White House must focus on saving lives rather than further criminalizing abusers or grandstanding on the immorality of illegal drug use — or legal drug abuse.

We’re past that; people need help.

Opioid deaths have soared throughout the country, and overdoses are now the leading cause of death in those under 50 nationwide. It’s arguable government policies have contributed to the spread of prescription painkiller addiction through Medicaid and a longstanding penchant for over-criminalizing the use of safer drugs, such as marijuana, to treat chronic pain.

Medicaid members are 10 times more likely to suffer from addiction and substance abuse than the general population, according to a June report from Express Scripts Holding, a drug-benefits management firm. More than a quarter of Medicaid members received the same pain medicine from more than one prescriber.

Other results are just as disturbing: nearly one quarter of Medicaid members in 2015 filled an opioid prescription, and nearly one-third of them took opioids for more than 30 days.

Holding prescribers and pharmacists responsible for their heavy hand in the opioid crisis should be a first priority, as most abuse and overdose deaths — even from heroin — stem from an original dependence on prescription painkillers.

But state and local governments must also decide how to treat the expanding availability of heroin on the streets, and the newly-allocated resources can be helpful in that regard. Local law enforcement throughout the country and especially in rural areas where opioids have hit hard must be stocked with naloxone, a life-saving drug that reverses the effects of overdoses.

Local law enforcement must also consider other outside-the-box solutions to the crisis. In Ohio, one county has considered giving immunity to those who bring in heroin off the streets.

Reducing that criminal element might be key to saving lives. Certainly increasing the criminality of this particular drug use will do little good. Such policies have already created a black market that spews increasingly dangerous street drugs and keeps those who need help from coming forward.

Michigan is dead center in the fight against opioids. The state is dealing with its own rising death toll due to painkillers and heroin, and Gov. Rick Snyder recently created a commission to help streamline response efforts by all agencies involved.

As with the federal government, the state must stay focused on saving lives and reducing access to these drugs rather than over-criminalizing it, or eliminating supply to the point where addicts seek out even more harmful heroin that what is already being produced.

State agencies should use new funds to provide the public with practical information about reducing the hazards of drug use, and even promote drug testing services that can identify the presence of deadly substances like fentanyl in heroin. Would that be a tacit endorsement of heroin use? Some might see it that way, but more importantly, it would be an effective tool to help save the lives of those who are going to use heroin right now regardless of whether or not the government condones it.

All levels of government must focus on practical, hands-on ideas to treat America’s deadliest epidemic.