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Biden’s Opioid Focus Will Be on Treatment, Acting Drug Czar Says

Feb. 4, 2021, 2:01 PM

The Biden administration will focus on recovery treatment programs in tackling the opioid crisis that has surged during the coronavirus outbreak, setting the tone for the White House as it embarks on the latest chapter of the fight against addiction.

The new focus marks a change from the Trump administration, which was more skeptical of harm-reduction approaches to treatment, like needle exchanges.

Syringe exchange programs, which provide clean needles to reduce disease transmission, data collection, and “culturally competent” treatment are among the initiatives the Biden administration will endorse, Regina LaBelle, acting director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, told Bloomberg Law. Cracking down on drug trafficking will also be a priority, she said.

“Treatment side is going to be an emphasis. At the same time, drug interdiction, international drug trafficking and precursor chemicals and the future of drug trafficking and the shift toward synthetics is another issue that has to be taken on,” LaBelle said.

The Trump administration had a mixed record on the opioid issue, scoring points early on by declaring it a national crisis and establishing a short-lived opioid commission. The Justice Department fought efforts to open a safe-injection site in Philadelphia.

Biden on the other hand, is eyeing what’s known as harm reduction, a philosophy around drug misuse treatment that emphasizes providing help to minimize harm without withholding assistance for housing and food, among other services.

The acting drug policy chief’s comments came as the administration announced top policy initiatives for combating the U.S. overdose crisis. Among those initiatives are addiction workforce expansion and prevention efforts, plans widely heralded by treatment experts as effective for grappling with drug misuse.

Demographic Data Lacking

LaBelle said various demographic groups have faced an increase in overdose deaths, such as the Black, Latino and Native American communities, and that the administration lacks “great data.”

“We don’t do great data collection in many areas but in particular in communities of color,” LaBelle said. “We need to make sure we have the types of prevention programs, of treatment programs that are culturally competent, because we know that one size doesn’t fit all.”

The Office of National Drug Control Policy will also aim to ensure “that funding levels are a public health emphasis,” LaBelle said. But the office needs to “develop the strategy and send out budget guidance.”

She said the administration needs to expand across the U.S. distribution of naloxone, a medication used in countering opioid overdoses. It also should consider fentanyl test strip use, which is used to detect the synthetic opioid in illicit drugs, given a rise in fentanyl overdose rates, she said.

“We have dire treatment deserts around the country,” LaBelle said. “We have so much work to be done in that regard.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Ian Lopez in Washington at ilopez@bloomberglaw.com; Valerie Bauman in Washington at vbauman@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Fawn Johnson at fjohnson@bloombergindustry.com; Alexis Kramer at akramer@bloomberglaw.com; Karl Hardy at khardy@bloomberglaw.com

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