Editorials

Finally, the political will to help opioid addicts

Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina speaks at the New Hampshire Forum on Addiction and the Heroin Epidemic on Jan. 5. She opened up about her stepdaughter’s ultimately losing battle with addiction.
Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina speaks at the New Hampshire Forum on Addiction and the Heroin Epidemic on Jan. 5. She opened up about her stepdaughter’s ultimately losing battle with addiction. The Associated Press

More Americans die from drug overdoses than they do from car crashes. In 2014, that was about 47,000 people, including about 30,000 from opioids.

Yet, for years, addiction to opioids and heroin has remained a silent epidemic, ignored by leaders.

No longer. It took far too long, but this scourge is finally starting to get the attention that it deserves.

Spurred in part by skyrocketing rates of drug deaths in the early primary state of New Hampshire, Democratic and Republican presidential candidates have been talking about it.

Carly Fiorina, the normally brusque Republican candidate, opened up this month about her stepdaughter’s battle with addiction. “As Lori grew progressively sicker,” she said, “the sparkle, the potential, the possibilities that had once filled her life disappeared from behind her eyes.”

Democrat Hillary Clinton told a gym full of supporters that she doesn’t know all the answers to this epidemic, “but I know we have to work together to find them.”

Any long-term fix to this seemingly intractable problem will have to come from the next president. What’s heartening is that, in a campaign season where candidates have agreed on just about nothing, drug abuse has emerged as the one issue on which everyone is saying the same thing.

President Barack Obama called it a bipartisan priority in his State of the Union address.

It’s not just talk. On Friday, Obama appointed Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to coordinate a new effort to address heroin and opioid abuse in rural communities. His task will be to create a comprehensive, interagency strategy.

Vilsack told The Washington Post he wants “to bring this issue out of the shadows.” The Obama administration can only do so much, though.

Any long-term fix to this seemingly intractable problem will have to come from the next president. What’s heartening is that, in a campaign season where candidates have agreed on just about nothing, drug abuse has emerged as the one issue on which everyone is saying the same thing.

Addiction tears families apart. Poor rural communities have suffered most. But because most overdoses are from prescription opioid painkillers, not heroin, the epidemic also has worked its way into wealthy suburban enclaves.

That has changed the conversation from one of punishment to treatment. It has also opened the way for some sensible solutions. One, for example, is to reduce the supply of opioids, including prescribing by doctors, which has quadrupled since 1999, filling medicine cabinets with a glut of extra pills that drugmakers have balked at paying to take back.

In a recent study in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers reported that people who’ve overdosed on opioids still have an easy time getting prescriptions for them from the same doctors. Seven percent of the study participants even overdosed again.

The researchers didn’t know why doctors kept prescribing opioids to at-risk patients. We don’t either. But in 2012 alone, doctors wrote 259 million prescriptions for opioids, enough to give every U.S. adult a bottle of pills.

Enough is enough. We urge the next president to exploit bipartisan support and double-down on the Obama administration’s efforts to end this epidemic once and for all.

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