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I watched my childhood home go from idyllic to drug-ravaged. Trump's opioid commission isn't going to fix it

I watched my childhood home go from idyllic to drug-ravaged. Trump's opioid commission isn't going to fix it
Prescription drugs seized in Taylorsville, Utah, on July 20. (Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

Growing up, my town in West Virginia was the kind of place where kids played flashlight tag in the streets after dark and neighbors didn't lock their doors. Coming home to visit 10 years later, I find a ghost town.

My mom's face peeks out of the blinds first when I knock on the door. Houses where we trick-or-treated as children are now flop dens. Friends we played soccer with are in jail. At the hospital, my dad tells me, 20% of the babies are born screaming, experiencing their first withdrawal as they draw their first breath. My Facebook feed is a dull stream of funeral announcements and disbelief. West Virginia has the highest drug overdose rate in the country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opioid overdoses — both prescription and not — make up the majority of those deaths. How did we get here?

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On Monday, President Trump's opioid commission made its first set of recommendations for how to get us out. It urged the president to declare the opioid epidemic a national emergency, and suggested a number of other common-sense measures that I hope will bring my state and so many others relief.

But to this West Virginian, it was appallingly incomplete.

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Nowhere in the report does the commission deal with the No. 1 barrier to treatment in West Virginia: the lack of treatment centers. According to the West Virginia Bureau of Behavioral Health and Health Facilities, there are only 750 treatment beds in West Virginia. But according to the Department of Health and Human Resources, 60,000 West Virginians are in need of treatment.

This is a big bone to throw to Big Pharma, and not one it necessarily deserves.


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Facing year-long waiting lists, residents confront an impossible choice: travel to an out-of-state, out-of-network treatment center, or go home where they will likely relapse. West Virginia is the third poorest state and has the highest level of unemployment. The members of Trump's commission surely realize that the first of those options is no option at all for the majority of West Virginians. So why not address the problem head-on and build more treatment facilities?

Instead, the commission, led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, wants Trump to "establish and fund a federal incentive to enhance access to Medication Assisted Treatment."

While one of the most common forms of this type of treatment ­ — methadone — can help people get off heroin or other painkillers, it is also an opioid itself and can be highly addictive. Emphasizing this course without emphasizing holistic treatment is a short-term solution. The only ones who stand to benefit long-term from methadone are the drug companies who manufacture it.

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Indeed, the commission seems rather keen on assisting drug companies (despite the fact that they were the ones who created opioids in the first place). "We urge you to instruct the NIH to begin to immediately work with the pharmaceutical industry" to develop new painkillers, the report states.

This is a big bone to throw to Big Pharma, and not one it necessarily deserves.

Earlier this May, Ohio became the second state to sue several large drug companies, alleging that they spent millions on marketing campaigns and lobbying efforts that downplayed the addictive risk of the opioids they produced and overstated the benefits. Several states, counties, and cities across the country have followed Ohio's example.

While drug companies do not bear the burden of the opioid epidemic alone — doctors, distributors, and patients themselves do too — the fact that the commission identifies drug companies as key partners, and never as part of the problem, should give us all pause.

The commission members' quickness in blaming foreigners for a problem that is largely national is equally disturbing. "We are miserably losing this fight to prevent fentanyl from entering our country and killing our citizens. We are losing this fight predominately through China," they write.

The commission is right to propose cutting drugs off at their source. But that means looking at American drug companies just as hard as at China's.

Drug 'em up, make big Pharma richer, and blame China. It certainly sounds like a Trump commission, but it doesn't sound like a plan. The people of West Virginia, and our country, deserve better.

Cassady Rosenblum is an intern in The Times' Opinion section.

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