PoliticsHealth Care


Is Congress Doing Enough To Stop The Real Killer In The Opioid Crisis?

Congress' massive legislative package on opioids may not be enough to combat fentanyl and heroin.
Posted at 2:12 PM, Jun 26, 2018

Last week, Congress passed dozens of bills aimed at taking on the country's opioid epidemic. But some lawmakers worry the bipartisan efforts don't do enough to address the biggest killers: illicit and synthetic opioids.

"Well, no, I don't think we're doing enough," Republican Rep. Randy Hultgren said in an interview with Newsy. "I think we're doing some, and we're trying to move in that direction, but I think we're trying to understand, how do we do it?"

The House on Friday passed a bipartisan package containing 58 bills to tackle opioid addiction through multiple avenues.

In 2016, there were nearly 64,000 drug overdose deaths in the U.S., according to the CDC. And just over 20,000 of those were reportedly related to fentanyl or other synthetic opioids, aside from methadone.

Some Republicans argue that targeting prescription opioid abuse will help prevent more Americans from making the switch to heroin after becoming addicted.

According to a study from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 80 percent of Americans using heroin reported misusing prescription opioids first.

However, less than 4 percent of people who misuse prescription opioids switch to using heroin within five years.

"I think what needs to happen there is more innovative, cutting-edge solutions to deal with fentanyl. You can't just sort of dust down the drug war playbook and think that doubling sentences or increasing law enforcement actions is going to deal with this," said Michael Collins, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. 

Getting naloxone, the life-saving overdose reversal medication, directly into the hands of drug users is one possible solution drug policy experts are advocating. Another more controversial idea is to set up clinics where people struggling with addiction can use heroin under medical supervision.

"When you have a drug like fentanyl where the onset of the overdose is really quick, if you have medical supervision when people are using drugs, you're going to dramatically reduce overdose rates," Collins said.

But Republicans have another idea. 

"Well, I certainly believe that, as far as addressing it at the source, what we're going to do on border security is really important so that it's not as easy to bring in the fentanyl and the heroin from these other countries," said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

"The border piece I think is the huge elephant in the room. You solve that piece, that can have a profound impact," said Rep. Dave Brat.

But Collins says focusing on the source of the drugs is a "fundamental misunderstanding of the drug market."

"The notion that cutting off the supply of drugs will stop people from using drugs really means that you don't understand drug use and drug addiction. These are fundamental laws of supply and demand — as long as you have demand, there will always be supply," Collins said. "That's why you have to focus on demand, focus on treatment, focus on overdose prevention. Those are the kinds of things that are going to actually reduce overdose deaths. Anything else is just trying to score political points."