A White House plan aims to curb drug overdoses, which continue to climb The Biden administration says it has a plan to curb fatal overdoses by 13% by 2025. But as more synthetic opioids reach the U.S., there's skepticism interdiction can slow the flow of deadly drugs.

White House pushes strategy to slow overdoses as street drugs grow more deadly

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The White House says it wants to cut the number of drug deaths in the U.S. dramatically over the next three years. A Senate oversight panel is reviewing the administration's drug control strategy. With more than a million lives lost to the overdose crisis, some lawmakers are questioning whether the plan is going to work. Brian Mann covers addiction for NPR, and he joins us now. Good morning, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: This country has been fighting drugs and drug deaths for half a century. So what is this White House planning to do that hasn't been tried before, honestly?

MANN: Yeah. So the big takeaway, Rachel, is that the federal government is continuing this slow shift away from the old drug war model. That's police and arrests and long prison sentences for drugs. Instead, the growing focus here is on health care. The Biden team wants to double the number of people with high-risk addictions who are getting treatment. They want to expand quickly access to medications that help prevent overdoses. Here's Dr. Rahul Gupta, who's head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

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RAHUL GUPTA: We could save 164,000 lives over the next three years and help tens of millions of people get into treatment and on the path to recovery.

MANN: So you can hear the goal is really ambitious. But turning this overdose epidemic around, as you said, that's going to be challenging. You know, drug deaths have risen steadily since the late '90s, the biggest increase coming in just the last couple years when this deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl hit the streets; more than 107,000 deaths last year alone.

MARTIN: Right. And I don't want to sound cynical because any effort is good, right? But we've heard plans and promises about solving this crisis for a really long time. What are the experts saying about this plan?

MANN: Yeah. So Dr. Gupta, who we heard there, was actually speaking at a Senate hearing yesterday, and there is broad support, especially from Democrats, for this shift toward health care. But there is also broad skepticism. You know, scaling up all these programs to help millions of people with addiction, that's expensive and complicated. And so far, the Biden administration hasn't offered a lot of detail about exactly how that's going to work. And there are also some big ideas, Rachel, that aren't in this plan.

There's no support, for example, for safe drug consumption sites like the ones now operating in New York City. These are places where people can use street drugs under medical supervision so they can get immediate help if they overdose. This Biden administration plan doesn't give communities the green light they've been asking for to provide those kinds of medical services across the country.

MARTIN: And there's other criticism, too, right?

MANN: Yeah, there is and a lot now coming from Republicans who, in fact, would like to see this going the opposite direction. They'd like more focus back on law enforcement, back on border security. At yesterday's hearing, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa said the health care and harm reduction strategies now in the Biden plan could actually lead to more drugs on the streets.

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CHARLES GRASSLEY: I'm worried that making drugs more accessible is what this administration calls drug control.

MANN: I should say most researchers don't agree with this. They don't believe treating addiction as an illness increases drug use. But what we're seeing here is American drug policy still kind of stuck between these two very different models - the old drug war model on one side and then on the other side, this incremental shift toward health care. And while that debate is underway, a lot of people are still dying.

MARTIN: You know, the battle against drugs in this country often dovetails with the debate over immigration and border security, right? I mean, does anyone believe the U.S. could keep fentanyl, for instance, off American streets by toughening up security at the southern border?

MANN: There is a lot of skepticism about that. The Biden administration says it's going to keep targeting Mexican drug cartels trying to seize more drug profits. But Falko Ernst with the International Crisis Group points out Mexico stopped cooperating with the U.S. in the drug war during the Trump administration. So these cartels are really operating with impunity.

FALKO ERNST: It's not the exception but the norm for Mexican authorities to be in many ways colluded with criminal actors. They many times form part of the same networks.

MANN: So the drug plan has ambitious goals but a lot of challenges, so we'll have to wait to see whether it actually helps slow drug deaths.

MARTIN: Brian Mann is NPR's correspondent covering addiction and the opioid crisis. Thank you, Brian.

MANN: Thank you, Rachel.

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