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President Trump Unveils Plan To Fight Opioid Crisis


Opioids killed more than 42,000 people in the U.S. in 2016. To put that in perspective, that's more than the number of people who died of gun-related violence or motor vehicle accidents the same year. Today in New Hampshire, President Trump unveiled his plan to fight the opioid crisis.

NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas joins us now with the details. Hey, Ryan.


CHANG: So what is the new White House strategy for fighting opioid addiction?

LUCAS: Well, the administration's plan rests on kind of three pillars. One is to reduce the demand for opioids. Talked - the president talked about doing this through education about how dangerous these drugs are. He wants a public relations campaign to warn people of the risks of opioids. And he also wants to cut back on overprescription because some of this is abuse of prescription opioids.

CHANG: Right.

LUCAS: His administration has set a goal of cutting opioid prescription fills by one-third within three years. Another pillar is treatment and recovery support services for people who are struggling already with addiction. And then the third aspect is cracking down on the supply of illicit drugs, particularly things like fentanyl, which is this very dangerous synthetic opioid. And one aspect of this that Trump focuses on is seeking the death penalty for drug traffickers. He also talked about having Congress pass new legislation to reduce the amount of drugs needed to trigger mandatory minimum sentences.

CHANG: I want to get to that last aspect, the criminal justice component of all of this. It's been very controversial since people have been talking about it. What more did the president say about that, especially about the death penalty component?

LUCAS: Well, the death penalty component is really one small part of this plan. But it has grabbed people's attention, and that really may be the point. The president talked about this at length in a speech today, and here's part of what he had to say.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We can have all the blue ribbon committees we want, but if we don't get tough on the drug dealers, we're wasting our time. Just remember that. We're wasting our time. And that toughness includes the death penalty.


LUCAS: Now, Attorney General Jeff Sessions put out a statement after the speech saying the Justice Department will aggressively prosecute drug traffickers and use federal law to seek the death penalty wherever appropriate. But under current federal law, experts say the death penalty can be used in drug cases in which a murder has been committed, but it does not mention the death penalty for someone who traffics in drugs that lead to accidental overdoses.

CHANG: Now, a lot of the opioids that are fueling this crisis comes from overseas. And the president - I mean, did he address any of that at all, that aspect of this problem?

LUCAS: He did. In fact, he called up both China and Mexico. He said he told them, don't send it, referring to opioids. A lot of the synthetic opioids are produced in labs in China, and then in many cases Americans just order them over the Internet by mail. Justice Department officials have said they're working with their Chinese counterparts to try to shut down these labs, but there hasn't been any kind of real public evidence so far that China is indeed cracking down. The U.S. indicted two Chinese nationals last year for allegedly manufacturing and distributing synthetic opioids. They remain in China.

But law enforcement is really just one side of this. A lot of addiction experts say prevention and treatment are just as important if not more so. They say the administration's strategy includes a lot of the priorities that states and addiction experts have been talking about for a while, so increasing access to treatment and recovery services, making sure hospitals are following the best practices when prescribing opioids. But there are questions about where the money is going to come from to pay for some of these things. And there are also questions about how the Trump - the Trump administration will actually implement all of this.

CHANG: All right, that's NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thank you.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.