Editorial Board

Stepping Up the Fight Against Opioid Addiction

As the death rate rises, states and the federal government must try every sound strategy to end overuse and provide treatment.

An epidemic moves to the street.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

America’s opioid crisis keeps getting worse. More than 33,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2015, the highest on record, and millions still abuse the drugs.

Efforts to control the epidemic abound, such as new national prescribing guidelines for doctors, more state drug courts and increased access to addiction treatment. But opioids are extraordinarily addictive, and the pattern of abuse is shifting: Many people who became hooked on prescription opioids go on to use heroin, or worse, illicit fentanyl, which is many times as potent. Fentanyl overdose, which can occur almost instantaneously when the drug is taken, is mainly what’s driving the death rate skyward.

So federal and state officials are trying increasingly tough approaches. In New Jersey, for example, a patient’s first course of opioids is now limited to five days (30 has been the norm) and the lowest effective dose. A similar bill in the U.S. Senate would limit first prescriptions to seven days. The Senate is also considering taxing prescription opioids to help pay for addiction-treatment services, as are lawmakers in Alaska and California.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control has launched an ad campaign to warn Americans about the risk of addiction. And Tom Price, the secretary of Health and Human Services, is promising to make it easier for the addicted to get treatment.

All these efforts are laudable, if piecemeal. But as the crisis expands, so must the response to it.

To this end, drug courts are putting addicted people who have been arrested for nonviolent crimes into treatment programs. The use of methadone and buprenorphine in treating addiction, now being expanded nationwide, has doubled success rates. And many states are now preventing deaths, especially from fentanyl overdose, by making the antidote naloxone available over the counter and putting it in the hands of police and others who are in a position to use it.

There may also be a place for more traditional law-enforcement tactics. A Senate bill would outfit border police with chemical screening devices to help detect fentanyl being smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico and China.

Not all these strategies will work, so it’s important that states and the federal government assess them carefully. Ideally, the White House commission on opioid abuse and addiction, led by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, will make sure that the most effective policies are widely shared and adequately funded. America’s opioid epidemic is growing and changing, and it will take both ingenuity and determination to bring it under control.

    --Editors: Mary Duenwald, Michael Newman

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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