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General News    H3'ed 1/31/19

Tomgram: Rajan Menon, Addicts, Addicts, Everywhere...

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

When terrorist attacks killed almost 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001, this country promptly launched a Global War on Terror that has, by now, cost trillions of dollars and shows no signs of ending anytime soon. In those years, staggering sums were poured into the Pentagon and the rest of the national security state to deal with the crisis that the war on terror only seemed to spread and, in the process, thousands more Americans died (as, of course, did hundreds of thousands of non-Americans across the Greater Middle East).

In the meantime, year after year, another kind of terror struck in this country with tens of thousands of Americans dying annually from it. This particular reign of terror wasn't launched by a tiny group of Islamist extremists but by a wing of corporate America, as TomDispatch regular Rajan Menon so vividly explains today. Its victims die of opioid addiction at a yearly level 20 times that of 9/11, a figure that should stun the imagination. In the process, we have become something like a nation of addicts. And of course, because such "attacks" last all year every year and because they have proved so devastating, this country has mobilized with a swiftness and sureness that's put the war on terror to shame: a vast treatment structure has been created that now dwarfs the national security state, trillions of dollars have been spent on... whoops, wait a sec, none of that happened!

Since Donald Trump entered the Oval Office, however, a president has finally gotten "tough" on opioids. Unfortunately, it's been in the same the fashion that he's gotten "tough" on the border -- and the effects have been similar. He's declared a public health emergency (but not a "national emergency," as he's threatened to do for his border wall), given a major presidential speech on the opioid crisis, set up a commission, held a "summit," and it's all added up to more (or perhaps less) of the same, to what Trump opioid commission member and former Democratic Congressman Patrick Kennedy has called a "charade." The funds that have been scheduled to go into the drive against opioid addiction -- a promised $6 billion over two years (less annually, that is, than Trump is asking for as a down payment on his wall) -- were modest at best, even as the president proposed slashing the budget of the Office of National Drug Policy, while leaving the Drug Enforcement Administration with only an acting head.

For all the talk, think of America's opioid addicts as the Afghans or Iraqis of our domestic world. They can die and die and, as Menon shows, nothing much changes. Tom

Walling in the Opioid Crisis?
There Is a Real National Emergency in America, It's Just Not the Wall
By Rajan Menon

President Donald Trump has repeatedly threatened to declare a national emergency if Congress refuses to pony up $5.7 billion to build the "great, great wall" he promised his base during the 2016 election campaign. In an apocalyptic televised address early in January, he even warned -- falsely, as fact checkers revealed during the speech -- that a tsunami of hard-core criminals and drugs was sweeping across the U.S.-Mexican border.

Fabricating national emergencies is unconscionable, especially when there are real ones requiring urgent attention.

Here's an example: since 1999, 400,000 Americans have died from overdoses of opioids, including pain medications obtained legally through prescriptions or illegally, as well as from heroin, an illicit opioid. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) notes that prescription medications were involved in 218,000 of those fatalities.

Even the president labeled opioid addiction a "public health emergency" after a commission he appointed in March 2017 issued a report detailing its horrific consequences. Trump's efforts led Congress to allocate $6 billion to combat the crisis in 2018 and 2019, and the president sought another $7 billion for 2019. Since then, however, his attention has turned to the "emergency" along the border with Mexico, the equivalent, by comparison, of a gnat bite on an elephant.

His initial urgency regarding the opioid epidemic seems to have dissipated, though not his propensity for making false claims. At a May 2018 rally, for instance, he declared that, thanks to the $6 billion, "the numbers are way down." If the president meant overdose deaths, however, his claim was blatantly false. Data from the CDC show that, between 2016 and 2017, prescription opioid overdose deaths decreased by a mere 58 from 17,087 to 17,029. As for overdose deaths from opioids of all sorts (whether legal and doctor-prescribed or illegal, as with heroin), they increased by 12%.

Congressional critics charge that the commission's raft of recommendations hasn't been implemented energetically, noting in particular Trump's proposed $340-million cut to the budget of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, which coordinates the government's anti-opioid campaign. And given the scale of the epidemic, experts maintain that $6 billion over two years doesn't come close to what's needed to make a real difference.

The Toll Taken on Trump's Base

High-voltage opioid painkillers were once derisively labeled "hillbilly heroin," but that moniker has become archaic and misleading. While the misuse of such medications tends to be proportionately higher among the poor and in areas with high unemployment, it now spans classes and regions. In the late 1990s, the surge in overdose deaths did start in economically depressed rural communities and small towns -- in Appalachia in particular. Since then, however, the crisis has spread to suburbs and cities across the country.

Still, a strong correlation does exist between opioid addiction, overdose death rates, and economic distress, especially in small towns and rural regions, including Maine's logging communities, areas reliant on commercial fishing, and Appalachian coal towns. In rural New Hampshire, where I spend part of the year, it doesn't take long to start hearing about, or meeting, people whose lives have been upended by opioid addiction. Such communities were the first victims of the epidemic because their economic decline produced despair, hopelessness, and diminished self-worth. Moreover, plenty of people suffered chronic pain, whether from workplace accidents or physically demanding jobs.

President Trump ought to be particularly attentive to the country's raging opioid addiction. Many of the hardest hit places are home to the very voters who helped elect him. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he presented himself as their champion, bemoaning the hardships of factory workers, miners, loggers, and others zapped by layoffs or wage cuts and living in communities in which the better-paying jobs on which they had depended, often for generations, were disappearing.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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