After the announcement of the opioid epidemic being a National Health Emergency just last November, the Trump Administration’s Opioid Cabinet seems to have all but disappeared. The sole representative who is the face of this new proposed “takedown” of the opioid epidemic is Kellyanne Conway, and according to several previous drug policy control makers, she is squeezing people out.
“It’s fair to say that the (Office of National Drug Control Policy) has pretty much been systematically excluded from key decisions about opioids and the strategy moving forward” stated a former Trump administration staffer.
This secretive activity by the current opioid cabinet comes after rumors that the Trump administration is planning to make massive tax cuts to the current “drug czar” office. As of now, there is still not a permanent director running the cabinet, and the previous top political appointee was a 24-year-old campaign staffer from Trump’s re-election campaign.
The Stark Truth
It is no secret that the opioid epidemic is taking a greater toll on our country and the civilians in it than any other drug in the past. Currently, the Trump administration and the opioid cabinet have proposed nothing more so far, than “Just Say No” and heavier border patrol. According to the National Center for Health Statistics:
- In 2016, prescription opioids such as Oxycontin and Percocet were involved in over 14,000 U.S. deaths
- Many people who become addicted to prescription opioids eventually turn to street drugs such as heroin, as they are cheaper and more powerful
- In 2016, Heroin was the cause of over 15,600 deaths
- Drugs such as Fentanyl were responsible for over 21,000 deaths in 2016
- As of November, Trump declared the opioid epidemic a National Health Emergency but requested no additional funding for his plan of action
There are plenty of political forces who have been rallying together to try to promote change. For example, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was appointed the chairman of the opioid commission council that Trump created after his announcement of the National Health Emergency, but as of now, the president has somewhat ignored all of Governor Christie’s methods of actions of making treatment more accessible, education for prescribers, and wider public health approaches to the opioid epidemic.
For now, there is an acting director who has been serving in the Office of National Drug Policy Office for several decades, Rich Baum. However, according to his close associates, Ms. Conway has not invited him or requested his presence at any of her opioid cabinet meetings.
During President Trump’s 2016 campaign trail, he widely promoted that he planned, and would be successful, in overcoming the opioid epidemic. He had stated that he planned to:
- Create a requirement that all federally employed medical prescribers be trained in safe practices for prescribing opioid medications
- Fund a federal initiative to create and distribute non-addictive painkillers
- Restrict and enforce stricter importation laws and shipments from China
- Increase advertising about the dangers of drug use
- Build a border wall to Mexico
As of now, a total of zero of Trump’s initial “visions” for tackling the drug epidemic have been put into place, and it seems now that his opioid cabinet is working behind closed doors, without informing the public what they plan to do.
According to the Drug Office’s Chief of Staff under the Obama Administration, Regina LaBelle, “I don’t know what the agency is doing… they aren’t at the level of visibility you’d think they’d be at by now.”
Budget Cuts and the Opioid Cabinet
At this time last year, the White House’s Drug Policy office held nine political appointees, this year, the headcount has fallen to only three. The strange thing is that with the FY2018 budget cuts that Trump enforced, 95% of the drug policy office budget was cut, but the administration requested $30 billion for drug control efforts.
Instead of putting so much funding into anti-drug policy cabinets, the Trump administration proposed that the Department of Justice, as well as the Department of Health and Human Services, would take over the role of anti-drug programs, so the White House can focus on policy.
According to Bob Weiner, who had worked in the Office of National Drug Control Policy since the Clinton Administration, “The ONDCP… was to be a coordinating force with power in the government and to bring together 20 agencies… This is exactly when the agency should get maximum support from the White House.”
However, despite the hushed plans of actions, the budget cuts, and the opioid cabinet keeping short lists of invites for other, experienced lawmakers, an ONDCP spokesperson reports that they still, “work closely with other federal agencies and the White House offices, including Kellyanne Conway’s office, to combat the opioid crisis.
One of the other budget cuts that are underway, is of the ONDCP two main grants, the High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas grant, and the Drug-Free Communities Act. Both of the funding and managing of these two grants will be handed over to the Departments of Justice and the Health and Human Services department.
According to the White House, “This proposal will enable ONDCP to focus resources on its core mission: to reduce drug use and its consequences by leading and coordinating the development, implementation, and assessment of U.S Drug Policy.”
The next major question then is, what exactly, is Kellyanne Conway’s opioid cabinet doing? While lawmakers and the Senate’s HELP (Health, Education, Labor, and Pension) committee staff have reached out to Conway’s opioid office, as they are accustomed to previously working with the drug czar’s office, they have heard nothing in response from Conway’s opioid cabinet.