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Trump Holds 'Listening Session' On Opioid Addiction


After the defeat of the Republican health care bill, President Donald Trump is moving on to an area of bipartisan concern and often bipartisan agreement - the problem of heroin and other opioids. The rate of opioid deaths here in the U.S. has tripled since the year 2000. NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: On the campaign trail, Trump talked regularly about the opioid crisis. Near the end of the campaign, he outlined his strategy for taking on the problem with a level of detail many of his other promises never got. Among other things, he proposed expanding access to treatment and making it harder to smuggle the powerful opioid fentanyl into the country through the U.S. mail. Now as president, Trump is beginning the process of following through.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This is a total epidemic.

KEITH: That's Trump speaking at the start of a listening session in the Cabinet Room of the White House today.


TRUMP: The narcotics - some of it comes in cheaper than candy - has devastated our communities. It's really one of the biggest problems our country has, and nobody really wants to talk about it.

KEITH: People are talking about it. Stigma has declined as deaths have risen and affected families seek help or try to spare others from the suffering they've experienced. At the listening session, Trump heard from a mother, Pam Garozzo, whose son Carlos overdosed on fentanyl.


PAM GAROZZO: I'll miss his laughter. I'll miss his smile. I'll miss him.

KEITH: Vanessa Vitolo told the president about how she found herself addicted to heroin. And Trump had a lot of questions.


TRUMP: So this all began very innocently with an injury?

VANESSA VITOLO: Absolutely, yes, with a prescription of painkillers.

TRUMP: And what was it? What was the drug they gave?

VITOLO: Percocet.

TRUMP: I see.

VITOLO: And then from Percocet, it went to oxy. And then from oxy, it went to heroin because it is definitely, like you said, more accessible and so much cheaper.

KEITH: Vitolo quickly became homeless but ultimately got into court-mandated treatment and is now in recovery.


VITOLO: I'm sitting across from you right now.


VITOLO: Three years ago, I didn't have a place to live. And today, I'm here to represent the light that can be born out of the defeat of this darkness. It's - there is hope. And there is a tomorrow. And there is a day after that. You just have to fight for it.

KEITH: Trump signed an executive order late today creating a commission to study ways to address the opioid crisis. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who was at the White House event, will be its chair.


CHRIS CHRISTIE: The most important thing to me is I think the president and I both agree that addiction is a disease. And it's a disease that can be treated.

KEITH: Doug Griffin looks at this effort with hope. His daughter Courtney died of an overdose. He met with Trump in New Hampshire before the election, voted for him and still supports him. But Griffin was alarmed at what the failed GOP health care bill would have meant for Medicaid and access to drug treatment.

DOUG GRIFFIN: I'll be honest. I'm a Republican, but I'm thinking like a Democrat now because I want the funding for these kids. Without treatment for the people that have no income, how are they going to get back on their feet?

KEITH: And there's another thing that has Griffin concerned. Trump hasn't yet nominated his drug czar to direct the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

GRIFFIN: How do you go forward without one? Someone has to command the ship, you know?

KEITH: Meanwhile, members of Congress are already working on legislation that would do exactly what candidate Trump talked about during the campaign. Tamara Keith, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.