The disastrous 2016 law on drug abuse was inspired by conservative Republicans loyal to businesses, but the bill was endorsed by Democratic politicians, passed by Congress unanimously and signed by President Barack Obama. As thousands died of drug overdoses, the politicians cracked down on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Industry sold the measure as a way to increase communication between DEA and drug distributors so that people would get the legitimate drugs they needed. But Congress acted without apparent grasp of the years of aggressive use of the agency’s authority to block suspicious shipments of pain pills, now impeded by the new law. The political system as a whole did what appears the wrong thing at the worst possible time.
Now, the law is an embarrassment for both parties, and a symbol of how powerful interests can sway the national legislature into almost anything.
So where do we go from here?
Arguably, Louisiana has done some things right. As overdoses exceeded homicides in parishes like Orleans and East Baton Rouge, both law enforcement and health care were mobilized. We believe the decision by Gov. John Bel Edwards to expand Medicaid coverage for the working poor was good for health care in general, but it was particularly important in light of the opioid crisis.
For the poor, detox and longer-term treatment is too expensive, but Medicaid will pay. For young people, in working class jobs, hit hard by addiction, this is literally a lifesaver. It’s also financially vital to small-town Louisiana, where poverty is rampant and local hospitals and health care providers find it difficult to stay in business.
The Legislature has also taken steps to stem access to drugs.
But as the debacle over the DEA’s diminished authority indicates, nationally we have to come to grips with a huge issue of overprescription of painkillers. The most famous case is the 9 million hydrocodone tablets shipped over a two-year period to one West Virginia town, population 392. That differs in degree but not in nature to the larger national problem.
In Louisiana, officials say, we have more opioid prescriptions than we have residents.
We’re glad that Edwards met directly with the president and other governors to encourage more involvement at the federal level, and we welcome the president’s statements about the “public health emergency” of abuse.
Still, it’s an expensive problem to attack, and it involves politically tough decisions. Should there be clean needles to prevent addicts from contracting other diseases? How should anti-overdose drugs be distributed? And who pays for the multiple levels of treatment that are needed?
U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Baton Rouge Republican, has crusaded for a more efficient medical system that will allow prompt treatment of the interlocking problems of addiction, physical condition and mental health.
We’re a long way from solving that set of problems, too.