President Donald Trump hosted a listening session Wednesday at the White House with administration officials, the first step in his pledge to try and stem America’s worsening opioid addiction crisis.
Trump called the increasing number of Americans addicted to opioids “a total epidemic,” and he vowed to stop the spread of drugs across the nation.
“Drug cartels have spread their deadly industry across our nation, and the availability of cheap narcotics, some of it comes in cheaper than candy, has devastated our communities,” he said. “It’s really one of our biggest problems our country has, and nobody really wants to talk about it.”
The listening session included people who have had family members die of drug overdoses, recovering addicts, drug recovery specialists and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, whom Trump selected to lead the commission.
A recovering addict’s story
Vanessa Vitolo, a recovering addict, said during the listening session she suffered an injury after college and became addicted to the pain killers she was prescribed. She started using Percocet, before moving on to oxycodone and eventually heroin, because it is cheaper.
“Very quickly,” she said she “lost everything,” becoming homeless and doing several stints in jail. Her mother, she said, would drive around the streets of Atlantic City looking for her.
Eventually, Vitolo made her way to a halfway house before getting a job and moving into an apartment.
“I used to think that being an addict was a downfall, but look at me. I’m here today. It’s obviously made me a stronger and better person,” she said, noting that she was sitting across the table from the president, while, “Three years ago, I didn’t have a place to live.”
On choosing Christie
Trump introduced Christie as a “very effective guy” and said the governor would be well-suited to head up the task force. Christie focused heavily on opioid abuse during his failed 2016 presidential campaign and has spoken emotionally about it in the past.
The number of opioid-involved overdose deaths has quadrupled since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and it estimates that 91 people die each day from their opioid addictions.
Between 2014 and 2015, the CDC reported a 16.4 percent increase in drug overdoses in Christie’s home state. Christie responded to the spike by signing a bill that requires health insurance providers to cover treatment for substance abuse and limits the amount of opioid pills doctors can prescribe patients.
At a press conference last month, Christie said addiction is “not a moral failing,” but rather a disease than can be treated.
“The more that we talk about it as a disease, treat it as a disease, regulate it as a disease, the more people will finally get the idea that asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but it is in fact a sign of strength," he said.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, and several members from state governments, law enforcement, and other groups will comprise the rest of the commission.