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Editorial: President's declaration offers a chance to bring focus and resources to the opioid crisis

President Trump’s recent declaration recognizing the opioid crisis acknowledges something people have been saying for years. It remains to be seen whether this new development opens up more resources.

The opioid epidemic is ravaging a generation of mostly young people, although older people are not immune. There are an estimated 2.6 million opioid addicts in the United States.

The President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, issued a preliminary report offering the starkest description of the overdose death tolls as “September 11th every three weeks.” The image of those terrorist attacks in 2001 has been forever seared into the national consciousness.

The commission urged the president to declare a national emergency, and he did. So what’s next?

The report is said to have understated the lethality of the epidemic. The commission based its estimate of fatal drug overdoses on 2015 statistics, when 52,404 people died of overdoses of all drugs, including opioids, for an average of 142 a day. New federal data covering the first nine months of 2016 showed the death toll rose significantly since 2015 and could reach 60,000.

Last year, 301 people died from drug overdoses in Erie County.

Resources are already being deployed on all levels of government. Erie County has been at the forefront here and a recent News article by Lou Michel profiled Judge Craig D. Hannah, a recovering addict who presides over Buffalo’s opioid court. Hannah, once addicted to cocaine and marijuana, is a shining example of how someone can overcome the toughest odds. He shows defendants respect and makes clear that he expects them to take responsibility by calling them “participants,” which is exactly what they must be in their own recovery.

Opioid addiction has been associated with a doctor’s prescription for an injury, as an example. The patient becomes addicted to the medication and, when it runs out, often turns to illegal sources. When the money for that runs out, the now-desperate addict turns to cheaper heroin. But street-level heroin in the United States is often laced with illicit fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid much cheaper to produce than heroin.

Addicts don’t care. In fact, the stronger the better. Even if it kills them. Police, firefighters and paramedics carry naloxone, which is the brand name for Narcan. It is an anti-overdose drug that can snap an addict back from the “brink of death,” but then what happens when that person takes his new lease on life and uses it to search out another high?

Not every addict starts out with a doctor’s prescription. Still, New York State has gone after those physicians who give out opioid prescriptions like candy. Such prescriptions should be given sparingly. Law enforcement and prosecutors also have set their sights on drug dealers. But perhaps the biggest challenge is helping addicts get clean. They have to want the help, and treatment options must be funded and available.

The president’s declaration should result in more than just words. America cannot simply stand by as the overdose death toll rises to the point where it is equated to one of the country’s worst tragedies in history.

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