There are 29 active national emergencies in place today in the United States. The latest is the one that President Donald Trump declared Aug. 10: "The opioid crisis is an emergency, and I am saying, officially, right now, it is an emergency. It's a national emergency. We're going to spend a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money on the opioid crisis. It is a serious problem the likes of which we have never had."
In spite of Trump's penchant for hyperbole, this declaration was a wise decision and came in response to draft recommendations of a presidential commission Trump appointed last spring. Unfortunately, it's been six weeks since the emergency was declared, and the only step the administration has taken is to form a public-private partnership on the issue with drug companies that have profited mightily from the addiction crisis.
At least 21,000 overdose deaths were attributed to opioids last year. An additional 30,000 overdose deaths are attributed to heroin and powerful synthetic opioids. Feuds among drug dealers are contributing to higher homicide rates in St. Louis and elsewhere. So yes, it's a national emergency. And America needs to act like it.
In Trump's defense, he's had more immediate emergencies from hurricanes to deal with in the past six weeks, both of them drawing down funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. If the opioid crisis were treated as a real national emergency, FEMA would have statutory authority for dealing with it — though its expertise in drug abuse is negligible. Congress had natural disasters in mind when it passed the 1988 Stafford Act to govern federal emergency response.
In fact, most of the other 28 national emergencies still on the books impose economic sanctions against individuals doing business with governments we don't like or terrorist organizations. The oldest dates from 1979 and blocks Iranian government property. A president can invoke the National Emergencies Act of 1974 and claim certain statutory powers to deal with the crisis of the moment.
In the case of the opioids emergency, the presidential commission, chaired by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, urged Trump to "force Congress to focus on funding."
The commission endorsed "the gold standard" of making medication-assisted treatment freely available. Experience has shown that by substituting less addictive drugs for opium-derived painkillers or heroin, addicts have a far better chance of recovery.
But such treatment is both expensive and controversial. Tens of billions of dollars would be required, as well as a recognition that addicts do better in treatment centers than prison.
The Senate had $45 billion for opioid treatment in its first Obamacare replacement bill. It had zero in the most recent health care bill. Real national emergencies require real national leaders.