In what has been rightly termed a national epidemic, New Hampshire has the unfortunate distinction of ranking second, per capita, behind West Virginia, in the number of opioid-related deaths and first for fentanyl-related deaths.
New Hampshire has the second lowest rate of spending on substance use treatment and officials in the Granite State, just like in its sister states in New England and around the country, have been struggling with the crisis. While there are indications that overdose deaths are on the decline, this is not necessarily attributable to reduced opioid abuse, but more reflective of the fact that emergency responders are carrying naloxone, which blocks or reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. It's important to note this isn't just about illicit drugs, such as heroin, but also prescription drugs such as Percocet and OxyContin.
Several days ago, the White House commission on opioid addiction (led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie), declared the United States is a "nation in crisis," and recommended that President Trump declare a national emergency. "Your declaration would empower your Cabinet to take bold steps and would force Congress to focus on funding and empowering the executive branch even further to deal with this loss of life," the Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis wrote in its interim report released Monday.
The White House itself has not yet responded to the commission's recommendation, but policy suggestions emanating from the Oval Office do not indicate opioid abuse is receiving the attention it deserves from the administration. In fact, the opposite is true. President Trump supported a health care bill that would have cut the Medicaid program that has provided treatment to thousands of addicted Americans and, like many other positions in the federal government, he has failed to appoint people to the nation's top public health and drug policy jobs. To make matters worse, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has signaled a return to the failed war on drugs, and has been enthusiastic about cracking down on legal and medical marijuana in states that have approved it over the past few years. This despite the fact that a recent study found that opiate-related deaths decreased by approximately 33 percent in 13 states in the following six years after medical marijuana was legalized.
"The striking implication is that medical marijuana laws, when implemented, may represent a promising approach for stemming runaway rates of non-intentional opioid-analgesic-related deaths," wrote opiate abuse researchers Dr. Mark S. Brown and Marie J. Hayes.
Loosening the marijuana laws could be one tactic in the overall strategy to combat opioid abuse. But what the nation really needs, Dr. Andrew Kolodny, who directs opioid policy research at Brandeis University's Heller School for Social Policy and Management, told the New York Times, "is an enormous federal investment in expanding access to addiction treatment, and for the different federal agencies that have a piece of this problem to be working in a coordinated fashion."
In other words: Leadership from the top.
What response have we received from the Oval Office? Not much. Instead, in a conversation between President Trump and the president of Mexico (the transcript of which was leaked to the Washington Post on Thursday) Trump appears to view the crisis as a law enforcement problem and not a health crisis. Telling Pres. Enrique Pe a Nieto Mexican drug cartel leaders are "pretty tough hombres," he promised U.S. military support, saying that "maybe your military is afraid of them, but our military is not."
And while we agree with the president when he told Pe a Nieto, "We have a massive drug problem where kids are becoming addicted to drugs because the drugs are being sold for less money than candy," our agreement ends with, "I won New Hampshire because New Hampshire is a drug-infested den."
If we have learned anything in the past six months and especially following the president's speech to the Boy Scout Jamboree and his urging of police officers to take punishment into their own hands, there is a moral vacuum in the White House. In what appears to be an unending stream of lies, half-truths and distortions of fact, liberally peppered with the use of code words popularized by the white supremacy movement, the occupant of the Oval Office, his underlings and his enablers continue to assault the sensibilities of most of America.
That's not leadership.
Yes, drug use in New Hampshire and New England is a serious, publicly visible problem. But New Hampshire is not a "drug-infested den." Perhaps if the president had been briefed by his advisors (we seriously doubt he reads anything other than the scroll on Fox News) about the Annie E. Casey Foundation's report on the best places to raise a child, when it comes to economic well-being, education, health and community, the best state to raise your child is New Hampshire, followed by Massachusetts and Vermont.
And while Trump did win the GOP primary in New Hampshire, he lost to Hillary Clinton in the state's general election, by a little less than 3,000 votes. So we wonder, what is he saying? Did he win the GOP primary because voters were all hopped up on opioids? And that he would've lost it if they had been sober? What does that say about his opinion of the people who voted for him?
As N.H. Rep. Annie Kuster noted, "Mr. Trump's comments underscore how little he appreciates the gravity of this issue and the need to work together collaboratively on real solutions."
As N.H. Sen. Maggie Hassan noted, "To date, [Trump] has proposed policies that would severely set back our efforts to combat this devastating epidemic."
We agree with Hassan when she says "Instead of insulting people in the throes of addiction, [Trump] needs to work across party lines to actually stem the tide of this crisis."
In other words, leadership.