Editorial: Treatment, not prison, needed to fight opioid crisis

Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks at the Justice Department in Washington, Thursday, March 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) DCSW112
Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks at the Justice Department in Washington, Thursday, March 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) DCSW112
Published February 6 2018
Updated February 6 2018

Florida needs to take advantage of every opportunity to bring awareness and resources to the deadly opioid epidemic that is ravaging communities across the state. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions comes to Tampa today to discuss federal efforts to combat the crisis, but if he sticks to his script of late he will focus on enforcement and punishment instead of where the attention really needs to be: rehabilitation. Without a meaningful commitment at all levels of government to treating addiction, this crisis will continue claiming lives.

In speeches over the last week, Sessions has vowed a surge by the Drug Enforcement Administration in targeting pharmacies and prescribers that dispense unusually high amounts of drugs. Using data from drug manufacturers, Sessions has said DEA analysts will look for patterns that lead them to lawbreakers. Penalizing suppliers ó not users ó is a smart way to apply law enforcement muscle. But it doesnít deal with addiction, which is what continually fuels demand for the drugs.

The scourge began with pharmaceutical companies pushing powerful, highly addictive opioid drugs to treat all kinds of pain. But taken beyond the prescribed amount, the drugs can also produce a high. Addicted patients and recreational users soon turned to pill mills that provided hundreds of pills with few questions asked. An appropriate state crackdown led by Attorney General Pam Bondi closed most of Floridaís pill mills, but that gave rise to a new demand for street drugs such as heroin. The epidemic now encompasses all forms of opioids, creating an unprecedented public health crisis that kills 14 people a day in Florida. Treating addiction is the only way to contain it.

Gov. Rick Scott, in his proposed budget, is seeking $53 million to fight the epidemic ó $27 million of which would come from federal grants. The money would fund drug treatment, law enforcement efforts and help local fire departments acquire the overdose-reversal drug Narcan. Itís a decent start, but itís not enough from a governor who made substance abuse treatment a low priority for too long. State Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, is asking for an additional $25 million just for treatment, which is likely a long shot but adds some perspective regarding the scale of this problem.

Scott is also backing legislation that limits prescriptions for narcotics to a three-day supply, with some exceptions to allow doctors to prescribe seven daysí worth. Thatís still too restrictive for the many responsible patients who need opioids for legitimate pain, and requiring a doctorís visit several times a month to renew a prescription would burden low-income people, the very ill and those with mobility issues. Lawmakers should listen to medical experts and fine-tune that proposal. The bill also gives broader authority to the stateís Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, enabling the sharing of data with other states, and requires doctors to check the database before writing prescriptions as well as undergo extra education. Those are smart measures that should be enacted.

Sessionsí stop in Tampa is an important moment to bring renewed attention to a crisis that cannot be ignored. But enforcement actions by the DEA will amount to nothing more than another failed push in the nationís long drug war if not enough is done to help addicts get treatment and quit for good. State leaders should be ready to find more money to help meet that dire need.