A crisis around which nation can unite

The nation’s attention is understandably focused on the mass murder that took place on the Las Vegas Strip on Sunday, when a 64-year-old gunman rained down bullets on concert-goers from his high hotel perch.

Yet in a speech Friday at Yale University in New Haven, the recent acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Chuck Rosenberg, pointed out that the nation confronts ongoing slaughter magnitudes larger than past mass shootings, and even the carnage witnessed in Vegas.

In 2016, about 64,000 people died in America of overdoses. That is the equivalent of three Vegas-size killings each day of the year.

True, unlike the concert-goers in Las Vegas, those who die of overdoses are not blameless. They took the drugs that killed them, drawn into the reckless behavior after first getting addicted on prescribed pain medication or though drug experimentation in search of a greater high. But they are sick individuals, suffering from the disease of addiction.

But while a deep political divide remains as to whether, and in what manner, gun control should play a role in preventing mass shootings, a broad consensus exists about many of the steps that are necessary to reverse the still growing scourge of opioid addiction and death.

A holdover from the Obama administration, Rosenberg officially stepped down as head of the DEA on Oct. 1. President Trump has not named a successor. Whoever inherits the job, he or she should follow Rosenberg’s example in focusing national attention on how major a crisis the country faces in the opioid epidemic.

Connecticut has been a leader in confronting the situation, but has not yet seen positive results, at least statistically. The number of state overdose deaths continues to climb, with the Office of the Chief State Medical Examiner saying the state will likely surpass 1,000 such fatalities in 2017, after 917 died of accidental overdoses a year earlier.

But a health emergency of this magnitude was not going to be reversed immediately. And contributing to the lethality of the drug abuse is the expanded dealing of heroin laced with the synthetic opioid fentanyl, far more powerful and deadly.

In time Connecticut should see progress.

In 2016, the legislature passed laws requiring first responders to carry the overdose-reversing and lifesaving drug Narcan, and making it more available to the public. Other provisions limited the prescribing of opioid-based painkillers, in most cases, to seven-day supplies to limit the potential for addiction. Improved prescription monitoring made it harder to doctor shop for prescriptions.

This year’s legislation further tightens oversight of the prescribing of painkillers and requires health insurers to cover inpatient detoxification treatments.

Locally, a Regional Community Enhancement Task Force, begun in 2016, is finding ways to improve cooperation between police departments in the area in breaking up drug distribution networks.

On Sept. 25, the Connecticut Fire Chief’s Association, noting that administering Narcan has become more of an everyday occurrence than fighting fires, called for a comprehensive effort to attack the problem from distribution though treatment.

Lawrence + Memorial Hospital on Tuesday announced it would provide funding for 250 doses of Narcan, the opioid overdose antidote, to be spread throughout 11 southeastern Connecticut towns.

Meanwhile, in the labs of the International Forensic Research Institute at Florida International University, researchers are finding markers that can tell investigators what part of the world the heroin they confiscated came from, aiding interdiction efforts.

President Trump has the opportunity to rally the country around a comprehensive effort to address this crisis. In August, the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, a group he formed and which New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie chaired, urged the president to declare a national emergency.

In an offhand discussion with reporters, Trump seemed to suggest he was going to do just that.

“The opioid crisis is an emergency, and I’m saying officially, right now, it is an emergency. It’s a national emergency,” said the president.

Yet the president hasn’t formally signed such a declaration and sent it to Congress, a required step that would officially free up money to be re-directed toward the crisis, set it as a joint priority of the cabinet and, perhaps most importantly, rally public support and put pressure on Congress to act.

Among the first steps should be eliminating the rule that prevents the use of federal Medicaid funds for substance abuse treatment.

With the recent hurricanes and the tragic event in Las Vegas, Trump no doubt has much on his domestic plate. But sooner rather than later, his administration needs to more aggressively address arguably the biggest crisis of all.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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