Will A New High-Water Mark of Opioid Deaths Mark a Turning Point?

By Rob Chambers / November 23, 2021

The following article was written by Rob Chambers, current President of the American Council on Addiction & Alcohol Problems (ACAAP). While ALCAP agrees with most of the article, we would discourage accepting government funds by faith-based ministries (ALCAP does not accept government funding). Those funds usually have conditions attached (if not presently, in the future) that would restrict what faith-based ministries can and cannot teach.

The latest provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shows the U.S. on track to exceed 100,000 overdose deaths in 2021, the first time such a grim milestone would be reached. America clearly has a drug problem that will require a massive effort from all walks of society to bring under control.

As one physician put it, the current drug crisis the United States is experiencing is “worse than the crack epidemic” that upended American society and brought innumerable amounts of crime and despair to American cities. But what once was being driven by crack, is now being driven by illicit opioids, and fentanyl in particular.

A synthetic opioid 50 times more potent than heroin, fentanyl has increasingly made its way not only into the supply of illicit opioids but into other drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamines as well. It is also often pressed into counterfeit prescription pills. All of this has made drugs even more dangerous than they were in the past. Because even the tiniest amount can be lethal (2 milligrams, or about 4 grains of salt), users are now unknowingly ingesting fentanyl with deadly consequences.

Customs and Border Patrol Public Affairs Officer Matthew Dyman attributes the fentanyl surge in part, to the massive increases in illegal immigration at the border. The drug is often created in Chinese or Mexican laboratories and then smuggled across the border by cartels under the cover of these large migrant caravans. Turning off this fentanyl pipeline will be critical but breaking the cycle of addiction by expanding access to treatment programs will also be important.

To date one of the biggest impediments to getting those suffering from addiction the treatment that they need has been funding, but that may all be about to change. A landmark settlement recently reached between a manufacturer and several distributors of prescription opioids and 44 states across the country promises to provide much needed funding to combat the opioid crisis. Spearheaded by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, as well as several other Attorneys General across the country, the settlement will provide up to $26 billion in resources at one of the lowest points of the opioid crisis.

Part of this settlement should go towards supporting faith-based treatment programs, which have a track record of success. Federal funds have already been cleared for such purposes – the Department of Health and Human Services previously affirmed that states may use opioid response grant funds to support substance use disorder treatment by faith-based organizations – so it makes sense that private dollars flowing to states from this settlement should follow suit. Furthermore, given the fact that the Biden Administration appears to have recognized the value of the faith community by reestablishing the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, I hope that the Federal government will continue to uphold this guidance as well.

As these funds expand access to medication assisted treatment programs, we must also ensure that patients are treated with the right medications. The Biden Administration has previously waivered on expanding access to one of the most commonly used medications to treat opioid addiction, buprenorphine. After reversing a Trump Administration plan in February of this year that would have eased rules that unnecessarily limited physicians’ ability to prescribe the drug, President Biden again reversed himself in April and reinstated the rule.

While an encouraging change in policy, such uncertainty could open the door for alternative treatments such as using marijuana to treat opiate use disorder. Trading one drug for another is not a solution for addiction and neither federal policy or dollars nor funds from this settlement should go towards such treatments.

It is often said that it is darkest just before the dawn. Hopefully we have reached a high-water mark for drug overdose related deaths that will soon mark a turning point in the opioid crisis. Immediate access to additional funds for addiction treatment programs will be an encouraging start, and this will hopefully be part of the movement that will mark the beginning of a broader trend of society turning away from drugs.

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