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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: Opioid addiction is a clear, present danger

After a brief period of balking, the Trump administration on Thursday agreed with its own commission that the nation’s growing opioid crisis constitutes a national emergency. The delay made little sense, because the statistics are just stunning, according to a variety of federal sources.

More than 52,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with 33,000 deaths coming from opioid overdoses. It’s the leading cause of accidental death, surpassing car crashes. The President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis issued a report on Monday that said the death toll was tantamount to a “September 11th every three weeks.”

In 2015, heroin deaths outpaced gun-related homicides for the first time.

More Americans used prescription painkillers in 2015 than all forms of tobacco combined, according to a recent Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration report. That doesn’t mean the drugs are always misused, but it does indicate their prevalence.

The rise in overdose fatalities followed the aggressive marketing and increased prescribing of painkillers in the early 2000s, according to a Washington Post article. State and federal authorities then cracked down on “pill mills” and tightened prescribing guidelines. As a result, many addicts switched to heroin, which is cheaper. Legal and illegal opioids are intertwined, because those addicted to prescription painkillers are far more likely to become hooked on heroin.

As fatalities related to prescription drugs have dropped, those related to heroin have risen. And if that weren’t enough, powerful synthetic opiates such as fentanyl have emerged. Fentanyl can be bought surreptitiously on the “dark web” and shipped via mail, making purchases extremely difficult to detect.

No state has been immune to the crisis. Opioid-related addictions and fatalities have risen dramatically in Washington and Idaho.

In a rare show of bipartisanship late last year, Congress passed the 21st Century Cures Act. The law expands opioid treatment programs.

However, many addicts access treatment with Medicaid coverage, so any plans politicians have to cut Medicaid will also undermine care. Idaho could expand access to treatment by agreeing to expand Medicaid. Many of the patients with Spokane’s largest opioid treatment program, run though the Spokane Regional Health District, gained coverage via Medicaid expansion.

Under a national state of emergency, a rule restricting where Medicaid recipients can get treatment could be lifted. Access to medications that help treat addiction could be expanded. Barriers to Medication-Assisted Treatment, which has proven to be successful, should fall.

But just as important, a huge spotlight will be trained on a drug crisis that’s worse than the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. It’s important that the nation react more smartly now it did back then, when the crisis was met with draconian laws and stiff sentences, and treatment was given short shrift.

Clearly that didn’t work, so we must resist the lure of the easy fix.