Trump pushes death penalty to help stem opioid epidemic; experts prefer more federal funding

President Trump suggested threatening drug dealers with the death penalty would help the U.S. “get tough” on the opioid epidemic. But key members of Congress and industry experts see better potential in increased federal funding.

A White House briefing statement outlined the Trump administration’s three-pronged effort to stem the opioid epidemic through increased awareness and education, stemming the flow of illicit drugs and better access to addiction treatment. The president’s speech at an event in Manchester, New Hampshire, emphasized efforts to “get tougher on drug dealers,” mentioning the death penalty for drug dealers six times.

While more aggressive prosecution of drug dealers seems relatively certain given the supportive posture struck by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, industry watchers and members of Congress were quick to point out that many other promises made in the president’s speech will require funding to come to fruition.

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“All of this is nothing but words on paper if we can’t fund it,” former Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif., who co-founded the Collaborative for Effective Prescription Opioid Policies, told Politico.

Senator Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., pointed to a gap between the president’s declaration of a national public health emergency last October and substantive progress to date. “What’s been missing is follow through,” she said in a statement. “We need the president to commit to providing the resources necessary to win this fight.”

Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar did not specifically mention the death penalty in an interview on Fox News, though he did call for “serious penalties” and “serious enforcement.” He said his agency is looking to address overprescription through “research and development in alternative additional pain management tactics,” per the Washington Times.

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The federal budget deal signed in February promised $6 billion to fight opioid addiction over the next two years. Daniel Raymond, policy director for the Harm Reduction Coalition, told Kaiser Health News that even once Congress eventually decides how to apportion those funds, it likely won’t be enough to stem the tide.

“To have a fighting chance, we need a long-term commitment of at least $10 billion per year,” he said.