Over the past several decades our understanding of opioid addiction has changed. We now know that opioid addiction is a brain disease, brought about by chronic exposure to opioids. Repeated exposure to opioids causes the brain to adapt in ways that cause loss of control over drug-related behaviors and compulsive drug use. What we once believed to be weak morals we now know to have a biological basis.

The measures announced last week by the Obama administration reflect this understanding. These measures, aimed at combating the epidemic of heroin and prescription drug abuse faced by our country, focus largely on prevention and treatment rather than law enforcement.

A whole $116 million will go towards supporting treatment of substance abuse disorders, including actions which will allow for access to care and drugs for combatting overdoses. The majority of the money (94 million) will go to “new funding,” which could help result in the treatment of nearly 124,000 patients. Another 11 million will go toward the distribution of naloxone. An important HHS rule would treat substance abuse and mental health services like medical and surgical benefits under Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program programs. Given what we know about opioid addiction, these responses which focus on getting addicts into treatment are certainly a step in the right direction.

Less prudent are measures which focus on criminalizing or punishing the behavior of opioid addicts. Seven million dollars of US justice department funding was proposed for increased community policing. A recent study published in the journal Psychiatric Services found that more than half of solutions (64%) to the opioid abuse epidemic presented by news stories suggested law enforcement. Only 41% mentioned prevention, and just 3% mentioned expanding treatment. It would seem Americans are prone to think of drug abuse as a moral failing, even when faced with evidence to the contrary.


“Is Prescription Opioid Abuse A Crime Problem Or A Health Problem?” NPR. NPR. Web. 06 Apr. 2016.

“Obama Admin Commits $116M to Combat Opioid Abuse – New America Media.”Obama Admin Commits $116M to Combat Opioid Abuse – New America Media. Web. 06 Apr. 2016.