Our country is in the midst of a heroin and opioid epidemic, with 91 Americans dying every day from an overdose. The problem is particularly acute in Alabama, where opioid drugs are prescribed at a higher ratio than any other state in the nation. Alabama averages an alarming 1.2 opioid prescriptions per person, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Opioids are derived from the opium poppy and are commonly used in strong pain relief medications such as morphine, codeine, hydrocodone, and oxycodone. Doctors often prescribe these powerful pain relief drugs to patients recovering from surgery or suffering from chronic pain. These drugs have a high potential for abuse and addiction, especially when improperly prescribed or taken. Too often patients who have become addicted turn to heroin when they are no longer able to access or afford the prescription pain killers.
Anyone who has ever struggled with addiction or known a loved one who has understands that this issue is much more personal than just statistics. No one makes a conscious decision to become addicted to pills or heroin. It happens gradually and can affect almost anyone. While patients suffering from extreme pain need access to strong medication, we need better tools to prevent addiction, help people get treatment, and stop drug traffickers who push and profit from abuse.
I’m pleased to report that President Donald Trump has declared the opioid crisis in the United States to be a national health emergency. This important designation will redirect federal resources to most effectively fight this epidemic. It requires federal agencies to devote more grant money already in their budgets to addressing the problem and to overcome any bureaucratic delays in the dispersion of these grants. It also shifts some federal grants toward expanding access to medical services in rural areas. The President’s action builds upon the Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act, which Congress passed last year to improve the prevention, treatment, recovery, and police enforcement of prescription drug abuse.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has formed the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit within the Department of Justice. Federal prosecutors have already taken action against those peddling prescription drugs in Alabama, including a Birmingham pharmacy technician who manipulated cancer patients’ medicine to feed his own addiction and two Haleyville pharmacy workers who took part in a scheme to generate fraudulent prescriptions. Action is also being taken on the state and local level. Last month, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall announced he is joining with 40 other state attorneys general to investigate suspect opioid manufactures.
I’m grateful for the strong measures being taken by federal, state, and local law enforcement to address this problem. As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, and specifically the subcommittee that funds the Department of Justice, I’m proud to support these efforts. Our most recent House-passed appropriations bill included a $37 million funding increase to enhance opioid investigations and prosecutions. The bill also includes $103 million for programs to address drug abuse through drug courts, treatment, and prescription drug monitoring.
If you or someone you know struggles with addiction, please know that there are resources in our state to help. In 2015, the Alabama Drug Abuse Task Force launched the Zero Addiction Campaign to prevent and treat drug addiction. Visit www.zeroaddiction.org to find addiction treatment services in your county.
Martha Roby represents Alabama’s Second Congressional District. She lives in Montgomery, Alabama with her husband Riley and their two children.