Trump Talks Tough on Opioids

(Bloomberg View) -- When it comes to the opioid crisis, President Donald Trump likes to sound tough, including multiple uses of the word itself. "If we don't get tough on the drug dealers, we're wasting our time," he said Monday. "And that toughness includes the death penalty."

Trump's speech in New Hampshire, part of the administration's rollout of its strategy for fighting the crisis, elevated talk over action. By emphasizing capital punishment, Trump has squandered another opportunity to lead a concerted, effective fight against opioid addiction and overdose.

That's a shame, especially because his administration is taking some steps in the right direction, which Trump also described, though with less enthusiasm: Using Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements to encourage more appropriate opioid prescribing, as it plans to do, makes sense as part of a larger push to lower the number of prescriptions nationwide by one-third over three years. The administration also intends to help states expand the use of medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction, which could go a long way toward removing the stigma against this effective therapy. And it plans to equip more first responders with naloxone, the overdose-prevention drug.

More details are needed on a proposal to help federal prisoners into treatment for opioid addiction. It will be helpful if they're given access to the most effective medication-assisted therapy.

These are the actions Trump should have emphasized most in his speech. And he should now push Congress to spend what it takes to carry them out -- no doubt more than the $6 billion appropriated in February. He should put a public health professional, not a political operative, in charge of the White House opioid effort. He should stop trying to undermine the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid, which have expanded access to addiction treatment for millions. And he should move ahead with many other useful steps proposed by his own opioid commission.

Yes, it's important to crack down on drug trafficking -- starting at the top with the big cartels. But Trump's call for the death penalty does nothing to improve that effort. It may not even amount to a real change. Dealers can already be executed if they commit murder in the course of their crimes. Prosecutors in some states have also sought homicide charges against dealers for indirectly causing the deaths of their customers, but it's questionable whether capital punishment in such cases is constitutional. In any event, a recent report suggests homicide charges have done nothing to slow sales of heroin and fentanyl.

The number of Americans dying from opioid abuse passed 42,000 in 2016 -- and is still rising. Trump's pugnacious rhetoric only shifts attention away from the real changes that can be made to prevent addiction and help sufferers get the treatment they need.

--Editors: Mary Duenwald, Michael Newman.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.

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