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The Slow Unraveling of Compassion

Yesterday President Trump held a press briefing about the opioid crisis. Consistent with his demeanor in other press conferences, he read a prepared statement peppered with off-script elaborations. After thanking HHS Secretary Price for his “work addressing opioid, heroin, and meth-am-phetamine problem in this country,” he went on to say “it’s a tremendous problem and we’ll get it taken care of as best we can. Hopefully better than any other country which also has these same problems or similar problems.”

Trump seemed to understand that 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. But as he strayed from his talking points, so did memory of failed approaches. “Maybe by talking to youth and telling them ‘no good’ or ‘it’s really bad for you in every way’.”

Well, I guess that’s taking it a bit further than ‘Just Say No.’

From what I can tell, the purpose of the briefing was to acknowledge the work of the Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. Many pundits speculated that Trump would support the Opioid Commission’s recommendation to declare a public health emergency. Instead, and not surprisingly, he emphasized the need for heightened law enforcement strategies reinforced by walling off our border with Mexico in order to “protect innocent citizens from drug dealers that poison our communities” (my own emphasis added). According to Trump, we don’t need to look any further than “the southern border where much of this comes in…. We’re being very, very strong on our southern border. The likes of which this country has never seen that kind of strength.”

Trump also reiterated his administration’s focus on the decline of federal drug prosecutions while President Obama was in office, elaborating that “they looked at this scourge and let it go by.” Trump’s response is like a posse getting ready for a roundup: “We’re gonna be bringin’ ‘em up and bringin’ em’ up rapidly.”

But Trump is wrong about the Obama Administration’s lack of attention to the opioid crisis. The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) was signed into law in July of 2016 and it was the first major federal addiction act in 40 years. CARA authorized $187 million in new funding. CARA supports the community-based opioid coalitions that are popping up around the country. CARA makes it possible for federally qualified health centers, treatment programs, and other entities to expand access to naloxone to prevent fatal opioid overdoses. CARA provides grants to states to establish or improve prescription drug monitoring programs. CARA authorized another $115 million for expanding alternatives to incarceration, promoting collaboration between criminal justice and addiction treatment groups, training police and first responders on using naloxone, and more.

Trump’s rhetoric plays to a constituency who’ve lost patience with those they describe as coastal elites who profess to know what’s best for the rest of country based on our education and ability to reason. Trump’s constituency are looking for a leader who’s willing to saddle up and shoot, reason be damned.

“My greatest responsibility is to protect the American people & to ensure their safety. Strong law enforcement is absolutely vital to having a drug free society.”

This is a fairly straightforward strategy that appeals to our most base instincts: lock ‘em up if they can’t play by the rules and lock ‘em out if they try to come in. It is far more convenient to do this than look at the deeper issues affecting this country where we are obsessed the immediacy of now and material goods; the concomitant trauma that accompanies violence; and the loss of life due, in part, to corporate greed and disconnection.

Some theorists believe the societal issues we’re struggling with now are directly linked to cyclical change inherent in social evolution—birth, growth, breakdown, and decay. Are we in the midst of a societal breakdown that will lead to the decline of Western civilization? If so, I hope y’all got your bugout bags in order.

But I digress….

If indeed there is something wrong with the US, it cannot simply be blamed on an outside entity. A wall and more cops aren’t going to heal our country. They only shift focus away from what really ails us—a longing for deeper connection, sense of belonging, and purpose.

 “We will win. We have no alternative. We have to win for our young people.”

I almost agree with this statement—although the concept of winning connotes an enemy who must lose. The enemy for Trump lies outside the borders of the US, who once inside, deliberately wreak havoc in communities of good, upstanding American citizens. But the enemy for me can’t be personified. It’s much more insidious and intangible: the slow unraveling of compassion and the ability to see beyond our “selfies.” It’s no mystery to me why so many people turn to drugs to cope when left without basic resources to thrive—food, water, shelter, love, and purpose. In this context, Johann Hari’s words are particularly meaningful: “eventually people can no longer bear to be present in their lives.”

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Monique Tula
Executive Director
Harm Reduction Coalition

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