US still in denial about war on drugs

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FENTANYL is hazardous even to an arresting officer's health.

Officer Chris Green in East Liverpool, Ohio, found out last summer.

The Drug Enforcement Administration warned police nationwide that fentanyl, the deadly synthetic opioid that killed Prince and thousands of others, could not only kill drug users but officers exposed to small amounts.

YET, despite protecting himself with masks and gloves when processing drug-related crime scenes, one of Officer Green's colleagues told him after one Friday night traffic stop that he had something on his shirt.

The officer had found the driver and his car covered in a white powder, he told the local Morning Journal. Without thinking much about it, he casually brushed the powder off with his bare hand.

And after a few minutes he fell to the floor.

"I started talking weird. I slowly felt my body shutting down. I could hear them talking, but I couldn't respond," Green told Morning Journal. "I was in total shock. 'No way I'm overdosing,' I thought."

BUT HE was. Although some medical experts have expressed doubts that he could have overdosed from merely touching fentanyl, they agree that he might have inhaled some particles while brushing off his shirt.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that sounds like a suicide kit. It has fueled a crisis that reportedly was responsible for 64,000 deaths in 2016, according to the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, and its relative carfentanil, widely described as elephant tranquilizer, is said to be 10,000 times more potent than morphine.

Yet when an ambulance crew administered a dose of the opioid antidote Narcan, Green tried to refuse it. Other officers insisted. "Apparently, I was in denial," Green said, until other officers insisted.

IT WOULD take three additional doses at the hospital to completely revive him.

Denial and the war on drugs seem to go together. The Trump administration speaks with fire and fury about the plague of opiate addiction. But when it comes to action, Team Trump sounds feverishly unfocused.

For example, federal drug law since the early 1970s irrationally ranks marijuana as more dangerous and less medically useful than heroin and cocaine.

In October, Trump declared a 90-day public health emergency over the opioid crisis but did not make new funding available to address it. The budget Trump is introducing is expected to slash the drug office's funding and pass much of its responsibilities to the departments of Health and Human Services and Justice.

STATE and local law enforcement officials are fighting a Trump administration proposal to move the Office of National Drug Control Policy, also known as "the drug czar," which oversees the $275 million drug prevention program to the Justice Department. Such a shift, the crime fighters fear, could shift federal anti-drug efforts too much toward legal crackdowns and away from community-based social and psychological services.

And in a great leap backwards to the "Just Say No" policies of the Reagan era, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has announced a shift away from the Obama-era policy of allowing states to set their own marijuana policy. Change must come from Congress, he says. In the meantime, federal raids and busts will continue, regardless of what the states want to do.

At the same time, Team Trump has reduced funding to the drug czar's office. President Trump nominated Rep. Tom Marino, a Pennsylvania Republican, to serve as its director. But he withdrew after it was revealed that he had pushed for legislation to hamper the Drug Enforcement Administration's ability to go after over-prescribing pharmaceutical companies.

WHILE that post still awaits an appointee, President Trump has chosen (drumroll please) White House counselor Kellyanne Conway to be his "opioid czar." Far more experienced at politics than public health, she has been criticized for nudging experienced drug policy experts aside in favor of an "opioid cabinet" of political staffers.

Meanwhile, to those of us who have been paying attention to the places where politics and medical science meet, the sad irony of the administration's currently chaotic drug policy is in the demographics of its victims. Pivotal swing-state voters who put Trump over the top in 2016 came disproportionately from the same heavily rural, economically distressed regions where the opiate carnage has been most severe.

The president should be president of all Americans, but he owes a particular obligation to those who voted for him in the hope that he would bring special attention to the opioid crisis and its root causes, particularly unscrupulous medical suppliers.

Unfortunately, it has been easier for Team Trump to set goals than figure out how to achieve them. Maybe they, like Officer Green once was, are still in denial, too.

(Write to Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com)

(c) Tribune Media

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