To overcome opioid crisis, California needs legislators who will be real leaders

California is part of the national opioid crisis. An advocate says the Legislature needs to show more leadership and offer more treatment.
California is part of the national opioid crisis. An advocate says the Legislature needs to show more leadership and offer more treatment. AP

Addressing the growing opioid epidemic in California will require our state elected officials to do more than author bills in Sacramento.

While legislation is important, we need leaders to be the voices that draw those suffering with addiction out of darkness and despair and into the light of needed, quality treatment. My organization fights for better treatment and more access, but faces a state Capitol that lacks leadership on the issue and a comprehensive approach to solving it.


We need legislators to become knowledgeable on addiction and its human impact. They need to instinctively consider the role of addiction in mental health issues. Elected officials must hold press conferences and town halls and get out in front of the issue instead of just reacting.

Who is going to step up and make opioid addiction their signature issue?

A small handful of legislators have authored or backed legislation, with limited success. Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, a voice in the wilderness on addiction issues for more than a decade, can be counted on to push bills that work on the fringes to make the system better. Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, introduced legislation we sponsored to end patient brokering, and Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, introduced a bill for licensed and certified treatment programs. Assembly members Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, and Freddie Rodriguez, D-Pomona, jointly introduced legislation to certify quality sober living programs.

But Californians, and people struggling with addiction in particular, need more from their politicians. Patients who seek treatment are vulnerable physically and mentally, and these problems are getting worse.

“Enough opioids were prescribed in 2015 in California for every man, woman, and child to medicate themselves around the clock for a month,” Kelly Pfeifer, a director with the California Health Care Foundation, said at an Assembly hearing in February.

At the same hearing, Karen Smith, the state’s public health officer, said that about 70 percent of the nearly 2,000 Californians who lost their lives to opioids in 2016 died from prescription opioids.

For California to have a chance to combat the growing opioid epidemic, we need elected officials with the desire and vision to get the state clean and sober. The blind eye to “death by denial” of treatment for addiction patients is a blight, but there is time for California to become a shining example by becoming the first state to end untreated addiction.

Pete Nielsen is CEO of the California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals. He can be contacted at