Former U.S. President Bill Clinton participated in a panel that addressed the national opioid crisis at the Bloomberg School of Public Health on Monday.
The crisis, which the Trump administration recently labelled a public health emergency, has claimed thousands of American lives during the past decade and shows no signs of stopping. Trump’s announcement, while underscoring the severity of the crisis, does not allocate any new funds toward a solution.
The Clinton Foundation and the School of Public Health co-hosted a panel of experts as part of a day-long series. Throughout the day a range of speakers discussed the growing problem of the opioid epidemic. Notable speakers from the series included Congressman Elijah Cummings D-MD and Baltimore City Health Commissioner Leana Wen.
Clinton said that he was optimistic about the future of the crisis because the country is becoming better informed and more motivated to find solutions.
“This is the first drug epidemic where we are acting like a grown-up country and we’re treating it like a public health problem instead of primarily a criminal justice problem,” he said.
According to Clinton, more than 64,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2016, and half of those deaths were related to opioid use. To put these numbers into perspective, he added that more people have died from drug overdoses in the past year than gun-related homicides or car crashes.
Since 2014, the Clinton Foundation has worked alongside the School of Public Health to gather data on opioid use. This month, they released “The Opioid Epidemic: From Evidence to Impact,” a report in which they outlined strategies for addressing opioid use in America.
Increasing opioid use is a widespread crisis that affects a wide range of communities, regardless of race or class, though Clinton said that many people perceive the crisis to be more important because it originated in rural white communities.
While he conceded that there may be truth to that statement, he added that the crisis is more widespread because opioids are easier to obtain. Many people begin abusing opioids after taking prescription painkillers or other medications.
He said that the opioid epidemic is transforming because it is often difficult for opioid users to sustain their addiction.
The pills are expensive and hard to come by if doctors will not prescribe them readily. As a result, opioid users frequently transition to using narcotics such as heroin or fentanyl, as both substances are more common and inexpensive.
Clinton said that this may lead the crisis to spread.
“So to say, this ‘movie’ is coming to a theater near you, whoever you are, whatever your color is, whatever your politics are,” Clinton said.
While Clinton noted that more people recognize the severity of the opioid epidemic, he said that there is still a lot to be accomplished. According to Clinton, the Trump administration’s response thus far has been woefully inadequate.
In his remarks, Clinton identified what he views as the three crucial steps America must take in order to stop the rise of opioid abuse.
The first problem that Clinton noted was the need to eliminate the negative stigma surrounding opioid addiction.
In a later panel discussion, Leana Wen, the health commissioner for the city of Baltimore, elaborated on this negative stigma.
“[We need to] change our language and change the way we speak about the issue — speak about the disease of addiction, as opposed to speaking about addicts,” she said.
Clinton said that the Clinton Health Matters Initiative will launch a communication strategy, which aims to help affected individuals move past the negative stigma of drug addiction.
“The proper public health term is to ‘empower them’,” Clinton said. “But once you know a couple of people who have lost their kids, I think we should dispense with the niceties. This is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s a problem. It’s a health problem.”
Clinton stressed that employers should have a similar mentality and assure users that they won’t lose their jobs as long as they are taking steps to save themselves.
Clinton also addressed the relationship between drug addiction and law enforcement and the lack of cohesion between the realms of public health and criminal justice.
Wen said that one step towards fixing this issue was the creation of the program Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) in the city of Baltimore, which aims to send minor drug offenders to rehabilitation clinics instead of arresting them.
“Individuals who are caught with small amounts of drugs are going to be offered treatment rather than incarceration,” she said. “It’s a pilot program, and it has already been very successful, but it is time intensive, very resource intensive and currently funded by grants.”
Similarly, in other cities like Los Angeles, low level offenders are offered alternatives to prison time.
Ben Barron, the assistant U.S. attorney and deputy chief in the narcotics section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles, explained that many jurisdictions have programs that deal specifically with drug use and offer intensive probation to assist individuals struggling with addiction.
“From a legal standpoint, the individuals being targeted are not the users themselves, but the doctors and pharmacists who are distributing prescription painkillers for non legitimate medical reasons,” he wrote in an email to The News-Letter.
Clinton also added that the country must engage in a community health initiative to broaden access to Narcan, an opioid antidote, and training on its administration.
He also advocated for increased access to methadone, a drug used to reduce effects of withdrawal and cravings for opioids, including heroin.
At the panel, Congressman Elijah Cummings stressed that better accessibility to treatment options is vital to responding to the opioid epidemic.
“[Drug users] have got to be able to get this treatment, and get it quickly,” he said. “We’ve also got to make sure that the treatment that is given is effective and efficient.”