President-elect Joe Biden, viewed as a drug policy hawk during his four decades in the Senate, is signaling a different approach to a raging drug addiction epidemic made worse by the pandemic, Politico reports. Biden, advised by addiction experts with backgrounds in public health, will emphasize $125 billion in new funding for substance abuse treatment and prevention, while seeking to end jail time for drug use. It’s a departure from his tough-on-crime approach as a senator and from President Donald Trump’s focus on a law enforcement response. “We have every reason to believe President-elect Biden will view this primarily as a public health issue,” said Michael Botticelli, who led the White House drug policy office in the Obama years.
Biden will take office at a crucial moment. States are contending with double-digit spikes in overdose deaths, sparse public health workforces stretched fighting the coronavirus and growing budget deficits. More than 76,000 people died of a drug overdose between April 2019 and April 2020, the most in one year. Federal health officials say the drug crisis has been amplified by social isolation, high unemployment and the diversion of resources to combat the virus. “Since the pandemic hit we have not been able to control the opioid epidemic,” said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Biden, who speaks about son Hunter’s struggles with substance abuse, has called for record investments in drug prevention and treatment while holding drug companies accountable for their role in the opioid epidemic. Some 70 public health organizations urged Biden to elevate the head of the White House drug office into his Cabinet, citing an “unprecedented addiction crisis.” Trump’s “drug czar” (a term Biden coined), Jim Carroll, was a prosecutor with no experience in health policy and has largely focused on law enforcement and cutting off illegal drug shipments.