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What a ‘drug czar’ can do to end crisis

The United States has a new “drug czar.”

Last month, Dr. Rahul Gupta was sworn in as the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, following his Senate confirmation in October. His installation comes amid soaring drug-related deaths across the country — a number that surpassed the dark milestone of 100,000 deaths in the previous calendar year, according to provisional data released Nov. 17 by the Centers for Disease Control, driven almost entirely by increasing prevalence of illicit fentanyl and its analogs. Even more alarming: data showing illicit fentanyl is now the top killer of young U.S. adults.

Dr. Gupta has his work cut out for him — but he is up to the task. In his previous role as chief medical and health officer, interim chief science officer and senior vice president at March of Dimes, he implemented health policy domestically and on the global stage. The West Virginia native has firsthand knowledge of the drug crisis in rural America.

Following are three things Dr. Gupta can do to hit the ground running and turn the tide:

• Devote resources to underserved communities. Long thought of as an issue primarily impacting white, rural America, the opioid crisis is now a major health concern in urban centers as well. In September, a study in conjunction with the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health found in 2018 to 2019 the rate of opioid deaths among the black population increased 38 percent, as rates for other racial and ethnic groups remained steady.

Dr. Gupta is the sixth person to serve as director of ONDCP — and the first person of color to hold the position. In this historic role, he is uniquely positioned to spearhead a national response to the drug crisis that takes into account the increased devastation illicit fentanyl is causing in black communities in addition to rural America;

• Focus on treatment, not incarceration. We will not arrest our way out of this calamity. People in the grasp of addiction need to be connected with treatment outside the nation’s penitentiaries. During his campaign, President Joe Biden committed to criminal justice reform, stating: “No one should be incarcerated for drug use alone. Instead, they should be diverted to drug courts and treatment.”

Americans overwhelmingly agree. A June poll released by Bully Pulpit Interactive found 66 percent of voters support “eliminating criminal penalties for drug possession and reinvesting drug enforcement resources into treatment and addiction services.”

Dr. Gupta has the power to put this popular opinion into action;

• Declare illicit fentanyl a weapon of mass destruction. As we care for Americans struggling with addiction and shepherding them into recovery, it’s clear more aggressive approach must be taken with cartels flooding our communities with deadly fentanyl at our nation’s southern border.

In July, Families Against Fentanyl, the nonprofit organization I founded following the death of my son Tommy from fentanyl poisoning, sent a letter featuring senior national security experts, military officials and federal representatives calling on the Biden administration to formally declare illicit fentanyl the weapon of mass destruction that it is. Joining me in this plea: dignitaries such as former CIA Director John Brennan (a Democrat) and former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge (a Republican) and a host of other policy leaders representing both sides of the aisle, including the immediate past Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy Jim Carroll.

Declaring illicit fentanyl a WMD would unlock resources and funding heretofore unused in the battle against fentanyl. It would activate an all-of-government approach to confront this crisis in a way that would put cartels and illicit manufacturers on notice. And it would solely target traffickers overseas and at our nation’s borders — it would not target U.S. citizens.

Dr. Gupta has a daunting task ahead of him, but by addressing racial disparities, increasing treatment and applying a WMD designation to curtail international fentanyl trafficking, he can reverse lethal trendlines and save American lives.

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