In addition to those proposals, Trump also outlined some initiatives already underway by the federal government. One piece of the opioid puzzle included a public-private partnership from the National Institutes of Health and pharmaceutical companies to develop safe and non-addictive alternatives to opioid medications. “I will be pushing the concept of nonaddictive painkillers very, very hard,” Trump said of that effort.
The president also mentioned an $81 million initiative from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Defense, announced in September, to award grants for research on pain management for service members and veterans. Additionally, Trump mentioned a separate Pain Management Best Practices Inter-Agency Task Force and the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Prescription Drug Take Back Day, which is next observed on October 28.
During his enumeration of those federal anti-opioid policies, Trump employed anti-drug rhetoric that has often been missing from his usual criminalization-heavy approach, even floating some surprising policies like harm-reduction initiatives for inmates and increasing the availability of naloxone and other pharmaceuticals for medication-assisted treatment. He also used the example of his brother Fred’s struggle with alcoholism, and its influence on his own teetotalism, to stress the importance of social messaging about drugs. He expressed optimism: “We can be the generation that ends the opioid epidemic, we can do it.”
But Trump seemed more animated when returning to old promises about building border walls, forcing China to crack down on fentanyl smuggling, “taking the fight directly to criminals in the places that they are producing this poison,” and directing the Justice Department to aggressively pursue drug dealers and gangs. He also used some of the classic language of the War on Drugs. “Illegal drug use is not a victimless crime,” Trump said in the closing turn of his speech. “There is nothing admirable, positive, or socially desirable about it. There is nothing desirable about drugs. They’re bad.”
It’s unclear where those conflicting messages leave federal drug policy—compassionate and punitive approaches are the opposing compass points of the opioid policy debate—but the main takeaway from Trump’s speech may be that it seems unlikely to change very much. Many of the policies that Trump outlined in his speech are already underway, and have been for some time. For those recommendations from the opioid commission that haven’t yet been implemented, there’s not yet a funding mechanism. Former Rhode Island congressman Patrick Kennedy, also a member of the commission, told The Washington Post on Monday that “to implement the recommendations that we’ll offer, it will require hundreds of billions of dollars.” In that same interview, Kennedy expressed doubts that the recommendations would be implemented at all.