“It’s a problem the likes of which we have never seen. Meanwhile, the overall drug prosecutions have gone down in recent years,” Trump said of opioid abuse during a briefing on the topic.
He heralded Price as the person to lead his effort to tackle the issue, and said that no one is safe from opioid addiction.
“At the end of 2016, there were 23% fewer federal prosecutions than in 2011. So they looked at this surge and they let it go by,” Trump said, referring to enforcement under former President Barack Obama. “We’re not letting it go by. The average sentence for a drug offender decreased 20% from 2009 to 2016.”
Bill Piper, senior director for the Drug Policy Alliance, told CNN Tuesday that stricter enforcement “has never worked” and the President would be “better focusing on the treatment side of things.”
“A supply side approach to drugs has never worked,” Piper said. “That is what has been tried for decades and it has failed for every drug it has applied to, including alcohol during Prohibition. As long as there has been and demand for drugs, there will be a supply.”
Trump would not be the first administration to crack down on drug use by focusing on enforcement, but Piper said doing so would play into a desire to “sound tough,” not actually solve the problem.
“It makes it look like they are doing something even when they are not,” Piper said.
Trump also advocated for more abstinence-based treatment to combat the opioid crisis.
“The best way to prevent drug addiction and overdose is to prevent people from abusing drugs in the first place. If they don’t start, they won’t have a problem. If they do start, it’s awfully tough to get off,” Trump said.
That sort of strategy advocates for targeting kids and young adults with anti-drug messaging, evocative of the “Just Say No” ad campaign of the 1980s and early 1990s.
First lady Melania Trump, White House chief of staff John Kelly and other top Trump aides — Jared Kushner, Kellyanne Conway and Reed Cordish — also attended the briefing.
Trump did not announce any new policy during the meeting, though the New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie-led commision that Trump created to examine opioid abuse issue recommended earlier this month that the administration declare a state of emergency to combat opioids.
“Our citizens are dying. We must act boldly to stop it,” read its report. “The first and most urgent recommendation of this Commission is direct and completely within your control. Declare a national emergency.”
After meeting with Trump, though, Price told reporters that the Trump administration believes they can fight the opioid epidemic without declaring a national emergency, a comment that refutes the commission’s findings.
“We believe that, at this point, the resources that we need for the focus that we need to bring to bear to the opioid crisis, at this point can be addressed without the declaration of an emergency,” Trump said. “Although, all things are on the table.”
The President pledged to make fighting the opioid crisis, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has deemed an epidemic, a top priority during the 2016 campaign, but some opioid treatment advocates have been disappointed by the Trump administration’s steps to combat the problem.
A White House official said Tuesday that the briefing with Price and Baum will provide the President with “an update on the opioid crisis” as the White House works to complete its review of an interim report his Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. The official also labeled the opioid crisis “an issue that he brought to the forefront of the campaign.”