Trump unveiled his opioid plan. Here's what he didn't say.

Matt Saintsing
March 19, 2018 - 4:36 pm

Photo by Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS/Sipa USA


President Donald Trump officially rolled out his plan to combat the opioid epidemic Monday in New Hampshire, a state with the country’s third-highest overdose death rate.

Part of the three-part strategy includes raising awareness through an advertisement campaign, expanding the death penalty to some high-level drug traffickers, and broadening the federal government’s involvement in combating the nation’s growing epidemic.

But, he didn’t mention a critical part of the population that is unfortunately leading the way: veterans.

Veterans are two times more likely to die from accidental opioid overdoses than non-veterans, a rate that reflects increased levels of chronic pain among veterans, especially for those who served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan.

That’s because up until just a few years ago, the VA was treating chronic pain almost exclusively with opioid painkillers.

As much as the VA has been a source of addiction for some vets, the agency has taken some serious steps to address the problem.

According to the VA’s own guidelines, there is NO safe dose of opioids. They also note that “risk increases with dose.”

The VA is the second-largest federal agency and public medical provider in the country, just behind the Defense Department. According to USA Today, nearly every VA medical facility has experienced a steady decline in its prescription rates since 2012, with an overall drop of 41 percent.

This is a significant shift for the VA as they once helped drive the increasing opioid epidemic. From 2004 to 2012, VA prescriptions for hydrocodone, oxycodone, methadone, and morphine—the four most common opioids—ballooned by a whopping 270 percent.

But, in 2012, the VA began taking serious steps to reduce opioid use among vets by adopting measures that had a marketed impact. Most notably, the steps involved non-drug treatment options for chronic pain, drug treatments that did not include opioids, and more regulation of opiate prescriptions.

In other words, the VA gave patients other alternatives to help their chronic pain.

Another opioid alternative that has grown in popularity in recent years in marijuana. In states where medical cannabis is allowed, patients lessened their opioid intake. According to the Minnesota Department of Health,  63 percent of patients who enrolled in an medical marijuana program “were able to reduce or eliminate opioid usage after six months.”

Minnesota isn’t just a one-off. In 2017, Illinois revealed that those participants in the state-sanctioned medical cannabis program reported using the plant “as an alternative to other medications—most commonly opioids.”

And yet, VA doctors are still barred from recommending or prescribing marijuana. A new December VA directive says they are able to “discuss with the veteran marijuana use, due to its clinical relevance to patient care and discuss marijuana use with any veterans requesting information about marijuana.”