AMAC Exclusive – By Shane Harris
Earlier this week, New York City announced that it would install 10 vending machines that dispense Naloxone and clean needles in response to a worsening crisis of drug overdoses sweeping the nation. Just days prior, the country had officially marked its one-millionth death from opioid overdoses since 1999, and in November, the CDC reported that yearly drug overdose deaths in the United States had topped 100,000 annually for the first time in history – a 29 percent increase from the year prior. But as the nation continues to regress in the battle against addiction, the Biden administration has been missing in action – even as their failures on COVID-19 and ill-advised policies may be exacerbating the crisis.
Throughout the country, communities that thought they may have finally turned a corner on the addiction crisis prior to the COVID-19 pandemic are suddenly finding themselves more overwhelmed than ever. 2020 saw more people die from unintentional overdoses in New York City than any year since 2000. It appears to have only gotten worse there last year. Kansas saw a 54% increase in drug overdose deaths in the first six months of 2021 compared to 2020 – which was itself a record year. Jefferson County, Kentucky saw 508 overdose deaths in 2021.
Much of the cause for the initial spike in overdose deaths in 2020 was attributed to the pandemic, as individuals afflicted by addiction were afraid to leave their homes to seek treatment, and the psychological distress caused by lockdowns led to the skyrocketing number of relapses and new addicts.
With the introduction of vaccines thanks to former President Trump’s Operation Warp Speed and the development of novel therapeutics toward the end of 2020, many Americans hoped that overdose deaths would again begin to drop. However, under Biden’s leadership, the country saw more deaths from COVID-19 in 2021 than 2020, and the country has now topped more than one million cases per day – a drastic increase from even the highest peaks two years ago. As a result, some states have re-instituted lockdowns and school closures. The administration has also thrown open the border and abandoned many of the successful policies implemented by the Trump administration for stopping the flow of drugs into communities.
While the media have been largely willing to allow President Biden to escape responsibility for his failures on the addiction crisis, there was a short-lived media firestorm over the sobering statistics released by the CDC in November. In response, the White House frantically released a statement promising to “turn the tide on this epidemic,” along with a fact sheet detailing actions the administration was supposedly taking to lower the number of overdose deaths.
But while that seemed to satisfy the corporate media, some addiction experts pointed out that many of the “strategies” the White House named for combatting the opioid crisis are likely to only lead to more overdoses, not fewer. Namely, the Biden administration is the first since the opioid crisis began decades ago to embrace controversial so-called “harm reduction” as the basis of their plan to combat addiction.
Instead of focusing on getting addicts treatment for their condition, harm reduction focuses on keeping people safe while they are using drugs. Rather than taking drugs off the streets, harm reduction advocates suggest providing test strips and machines to determine if heroin or other drugs contain deadly additives like fentanyl. The American Rescue Plan, which passed Congress in March, contained $30 million for harm reduction programs, and Biden’s 2022 budget proposal includes funding for the strategy as well. The Biden administration is also reportedly considering whether or not to officially condone the practice of “supervised injection sites,” where drug users can legally take drugs under the supervision of staff trained to reverse overdoses. Critics of the injection sites say they don’t want them in their neighborhoods – many of which contain schools and churches.
The Biden administration has also made no mention of the ongoing crisis at the southern border in relation to the opioid epidemic, and how open-border policies are contributing to overdoses. While official numbers for all of 2021 have not yet been released, by June of last year Customs and Border Patrol had already intercepted more fentanyl than in all of 2020 – likely representing only a fraction of the total amount of the substance that actually made it into the country. Thanks to the Biden administration actions like the reversal of Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, law enforcement agencies have been forced to divert resources from anti-trafficking operations to deal with “processing” the massive influx of illegal migrants that are now being held inside the country. Without a renewed commitment to stopping drugs from entering the country in the first place, law enforcement and health professionals will likely face an uphill battle in stopping more overdoses.
The continued spike in opioid deaths is particularly tragic given the historic progress made on the issue during the first three years of the Trump administration. Shortly after taking office, Trump officially declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency and secured a record amount of funding for intervention and interdiction efforts, including counter-trafficking measures at the border that helped stem the flow of drugs into the country. Trump also brought criminal charges against major pharmaceutical companies who were responsible for the initial surge in addictions beginning in the 1990s. As a result of these policies, overdose deaths dropped in 2018 for the first time in decades and remained relatively steady until the onset of the pandemic in 2020.
In dealing with the opioid crisis, the Biden administration is no doubt reluctant to call attention to another crisis that they have been unable to solve. Along with inflation, a border disaster, an ongoing crime wave, and a host of other calamities plaguing the country, overdose deaths may seem like a second-tier issue for the beleaguered administration. But for the millions of Americans struggling with addiction each day, the silence from the White House is deafening.
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