When President-elect Joe Biden enters office, he will inherit two public health crises: the coronavirus, which continues to spread and fill hospitals throughout the country, and the resurgent opioid drug epidemic, which continues to plague American families.
The American Medical Association warned in October that “the nation’s opioid epidemic has grown into a much more complicated and deadly drug overdose epidemic,” largely due to the availability of “illicitly manufactured” fentanyl, a synthetic opioid. And according to the AP, the United States could reach a record-high number of drug overdoses in the country this year. Experts point to the pandemic as making the opioid problem worse because many people are isolated, unemployed, and under increased amounts of stress.
“Since the pandemic hit we have not been able to control the opioid epidemic,” Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, told Politico, as part of the publication’s extensive look at Biden’s opioid response plans. “Our vulnerabilities have just gotten worse.”
And in states like Ohio, the situation is dire. “I never thought we could top 2017 levels of death and I was wrong,” Dennis Cauchon, president of Harm Reduction Ohio, said to Politico. “It’s a slaughter out there.”
In his early appointments, Biden has signaled he is preparing to address the addiction crisis by bringing public health and addiction experts into his administration. This would be a shift from Biden’s early career in the Senate, where he took a “tough on crime” stance, passing bills that led to sentencing disparities along racial lines.
In a letter to the president-elect, upwards of 70 public health organizations called on Biden to address the “unprecedented addiction crisis” by making the head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) a cabinet-level position, as presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did. The drug czar joining the cabinet would show that combatting the opioid epidemic is a priority for the Biden administration.
So far, Biden has selected Rahul Gupta, West Virginia’s former state health officer, as transition team leader for the ONDCP. While in office, Gupta managed to decrease deaths in the state from overdoses using data-driven analysis. Biden is also reportedly considering former Obama surgeon general Vivek Murthy, who released the first-ever surgeon general’s report on addiction, to lead the Department of Health and Human Services.
Biden’s campaign plan to end the opioid crisis also shows he has evolved on the issue. In it, he calls for $125 billion in funding for effective prevention, treatment, and recovery services; reforming the criminal justice system to end incarceration for drug use; and holding pharmaceutical companies responsible for their role in creating and perpetuating the crisis.
Perhaps one reason for Biden’s about-face on drugs and addiction is his personal experience with his son, Hunter, who has struggled with drug and alcohol addiction. During one of the presidential debates during the campaign, Biden spoke poignantly about Hunter, saying, “My son, like a lot of people, like a lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem. He’s fixed it, he’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him. I’m proud of my son.”
But too many Americans do not have the support and resources that Hunter Biden did. And it’s time we addressed it before it’s too late.