President Donald Trump on Monday laid out an ambitious plan that he said will stop the nation’s growing opioid epidemic, touting measures embraced by public health experts and reiterating his controversial calls to build a wall along the Mexico border and to seek the death penalty for high-level drug traffickers.
“I tell you the scourge of drug addiction in America will stop,” Trump said in New Hampshire, a state hit hard by the addiction crisis. “It will stop.”
But public health experts and lawmakers are already raising questions about whether Congress could provide potentially tens of billions of dollars it would take to fulfill Trump’s blueprint, which lacked key details about funding. They also worry Trump’s harsh immigration rhetoric and focus on law enforcement measures will overshadow bipartisan treatment and prevention measures.
Trump, eager to project a law-and-order approach, dedicated a chunk of his wide-ranging speech dwelling on how to punish drug dealers and traffickers — while also touching on drug prices, the economy and so-called sanctuary cities.
“We're going to solve it with brains, we're going to solve it with resolve, we're going to solve it with toughness, because toughness is the thing that they most fear,” said Trump, who repeatedly turned to the theme of law enforcement throughout the speech.
“If we don’t get tougher on drug dealers, we are wasting our time … and that toughness includes the death penalty,” he added.
Trump’s plan includes numerous public health measures that will new spending from Congress, although it’s unclear whether lawmakers will provide the money. One White House proposal, to expand Medicaid coverage for inpatient addiction treatment by lifting a decades-old restriction, could cost at least several billion dollars per year.
“All of this is nothing but words on paper if we can’t fund it,” said former Rep. Mary Bono, co-founder of the Collaborative for Effective Prescription Opioid Policies.
The White House plan, when it comes to treatment and prevention, largely mirrors policies first developed during the Obama administration, from advocating for a nationwide database to monitor for patients who seek multiple opioid prescriptions to making overdose reversal drugs more available to first responders. The White House also announced a new website, CrisisNextDoor.gov, that encourages Americans to share their own personal experiences with addiction in hopes of lessening the stigma.
Bipartisan proposals to further address the epidemic will get attention from key congressional committees this week. Congress, meanwhile, is expected to soon announce plans on how it will spend an additional $6 billion toward the epidemic that was provided in last month’s budget deal.
“The opioid crisis is viewed by us at the White House as a nonpartisan problem searching for bipartisan solutions,” White House aide Kellyanne Conway told reporters on Sunday. Conway is scheduled to have lunch with House Energy and Commerce Republicans on Wednesday to discuss that committee’s opioid legislation.
Trump’s speech — his first visit to New Hampshire as president — carried an undeniable whiff of politics, coming three weeks after announcing his 2020 reelection bid and as Republican rivals also eye the state, fueling possible talk of a GOP primary.
“I want to win this [opioid] battle. I don’t want to leave at the end of seven years and have these problems, OK?” Trump said, alluding to his possible reelection. “A lot of voters in the room, I see that,” he added.
Trump also used his speech to stump for his border wall proposal, which he maintained is necessary to stem the flow of illicit drugs, while hitting Democrats for their staunch opposition.
“Ninety percent of the heroin in America comes from our southern border where eventually the Democrats will agree with us and build the wall to keep the damn drugs out,” Trump said.
Many law enforcement experts have said that traffickers will find other ways to get their drugs into the country.
Public health experts seized on Trump’s harsh language around enforcement, which included calling on Congress to make it easier to invoke the mandatory minimum sentence for drug traffickers who knowingly distribute illegal opioids that can be lethal, like fentanyl.
“They are treating this like a criminal epidemic as opposed to a public health epidemic,” said former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who was a member of the president’s opioid commission last year. “He should be using his bully pulpit to send a clear message that the health system needs to change its stripes … [instead] it’s going to be a sideshow about who qualifies for the death penalty.”
Trump was joined at the speech by HHS Secretary Alex Azar, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, whose departments are largely responsible for executing the president’s ambitious plan. Conspicuously absent at Trump’s speech: Democrats. The state’s two Democratic senators needed to stay in Washington for votes, their offices told POLITICO.
Trump’s visit also sparked local protests, with some demonstrators seizing on reports that Trump called New Hampshire a “drug-infested den" in a conversation with Mexico's president.
There were more than 64,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016, mostly involving opioids, according to the most recent federal mortality data. The CDC this month reported that emergency rooms recorded a 30 percent spike in opioid overdoses last summer, indicating that the devastating crisis is worsening.