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Over three days in early October, Chicago saw 74 heroin-related overdoses. In Massachusetts, drug overdoses kill more people than car accidents and gun violence combined. Throughout the country, the numbers are similarly disturbing, and unfortunately not surprising. Over the past decade, opioid-related overdoses and deaths have skyrocketed and the numbers continue to climb. Deaths resulting from prescribed opioid pain relieversincreased threefold between 2001 and 2013; heroin-related deaths increased fivefoldduring the same period. While other countries also suffer from crippling drug addiction, in the United States, less than 5% of the global population gobbles up more than 80% of the world’s opioid products.
While President Obama is beginning to speak out on this issue, this time next year the country will be on the verge of electing a new president. How our new leader chooses to address this crisis will be one of the defining characteristics of his or her presidency. Will criminalization of addicts continue to be prioritized over treatment? Will more doctors be able to prescribe potentially life-saving drugs like naloxone? I spoke with Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio, the co-chair of the Congressional Addiction, Treatment, and Recovery Caucus and co-sponsor of the Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act (CARA) in the House, about how he thinks the next leader of the free world should approach this devastating problem.
Hillary Clinton’s plan to address the addiction crisis is far more comprehensive than anything her competitors have outlined. The $10 billion plan would increase, and ultimately remove completely, the “caps” on the number of patients doctors can treat with buprenorphine, methadone, and naltrexone, also known as “medication-assisted treatment” (MAT). Numerous studies have shown that MAT decreases the likelihood of an addict relapsing by mitigating some of the painful withdrawal symptoms and blocking cravings.
“Medication-assisted treatment has to be an essential component of any approach we take [to combat the opioid crisis],” Congressman Ryan said, and gave Clinton credit for focusing on it. Facilitating medication-assisted treatment is also an essential component of CARA, the bill he has co-sponsored in the House. “Put simply,” Congressman Ryan said, “there is more demand for these drugs than there are people who have access to them. If we keep the pipeline [of medication-assisted treatment] small, we’re never going to get access to as many people who need it.” Developed with input from the Centers for Disease Control and other addiction treatment professionals, Clinton’s plan also offers financial incentives for state and local efforts to address the addiction epidemic in their communities.
As for the other major Democratic candidate, Bernie Sanders has made statements in support of treatment instead of jail time for heroin addicts and stated the need for aprice reduction of naloxone. As of press time, however, Sanders hadn’t offered a plan to treat the epidemic.