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Trump declares opioid crisis is national emergency

President Trump said the epidemic exceeded anything he had seen with other drugs in his lifetime.

Al Drago/New York Times

President Trump said the epidemic exceeded anything he had seen with other drugs in his lifetime.

President Trump on Thursday declared the country’s opioid crisis a national emergency, saying the epidemic exceeded anything he had seen with other drugs in his lifetime.

The statement by the president came in response to a question as he spoke to reporters outside a national security briefing at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., where he is on a working vacation.

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‘‘The opioid crisis is an emergency, and I’m saying officially right now it is an emergency. It’s a national emergency. We’re going to spend a lot of time, a lot of effort, and a lot of money on the opioid crisis,’’ he said.

‘‘It is a serious problem, the likes of which we’ve never had. You know, when I was growing up, they had the LSD, and they had certain generations of drugs. There’s never been anything like what’s happened to this country over the last four or five years.’’

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He indicated that the White House was still working on the official paperwork.

‘‘This is a worldwide problem, not just a United States problem. This is happening worldwide. But this is a national emergency, and we are drawing documents now to so attest,’’ he said.

But Michael Botticelli, executive director of the Grayken Center for Addiction Medicine at Boston Medical Center, said, “The real test is what actions or resources are going to come of this declaration.”

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Botticelli, who was director of national drug control policy in former president Barack Obama’s administration, called it “somewhat ironic” that Trump has called for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the main way that people with addiction are able to obtain treatment. “It calls into question to what extent the administration really wants to make a difference in this epidemic,” he said.

Governor Charlie Baker, who serves on the national commission that recommended the emergency declaration, said through a spokeswoman that “federal support at all levels is critical to combating the epidemic.” Spokeswoman Lizzy Guyton said in a statement that the administration enacted first-in-the-nation limits to addictive drugs while increasing funding for treatment in Massachusetts, but “federal support at all levels is critical to combating the epidemic.”

Treatment providers and addiction professionals in Massachusetts welcomed the news but said they would be eager to see the president put some money where his mouth is.

“Hopefully it will mean a lot more federal funds will be available to the state,” said Frederick Newton, president and chief executive of Hope House, an addiction treatment provider. “Something approaching 60,000 people a year are dying from opioid overdoses. I call that an emergency.”

Hope House currently has a six-week waiting list for long-term treatment. “It takes money to get the beds up and running,” Newton said.

The scale of the crisis, which has been building for well over a decade, is such that a presidential declaration may not have much immediate effect. It should allow the administration to remove some bureaucratic barriers and waive some federal rules governing how states and localities respond to the drug epidemic. One such rule restricts where Medicaid recipients can receive addiction treatment.

‘‘It’s symbolic mostly and it actually involves a lot of reporting and paperwork,’’ Richard Frank, a professor of health economics at Harvard Medical School, told The Washington Post earlier this week when asked about the importance of a presidential declaration.

Governors in Arizona, Florida, Maryland, and Virginia have already declared emergencies. And in recent months the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, Congress, physician groups, and the insurance industry have all taken institutional steps to address the crisis. At the street level, police, firefighters, and paramedics now routinely carry naloxone (brand name Narcan), the antioverdose drug that can yank an addict from the brink of death.

The problem is that drug addiction is widespread and growing, with an estimated 2.6 million opioid addicts in the United States, a number that’s growing.

In March, Trump established the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, which is led by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Last week, the commission issued a preliminary report that described the overdose death toll as ‘‘September 11th every three weeks’’ and urged the president to declare a national emergency.

‘‘The opioid epidemic we are facing is unparalleled. The average American would likely be shocked to know that drug overdoses now kill more people than gun homicides and car crashes combined, the report states.

The report actually understated the lethality of the epidemic. The commission based its estimate of the number of fatal drug overdoses on 2015 statistics. But new federal data covering the first nine months of 2016 showed that the death toll jumped significantly since 2015.

Trump’s declaration Thursday came just days after he received an extended briefing on the subject in Bedminster. After that event, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price told reporters that declaring a national emergency is a step usually reserved for ‘‘a time-limited problem,’’ like the Zika outbreak or problems caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Price said that the administration can do the same sorts of things without declaring an emergency, although he said Trump was keeping the option on the table.

Opioids are a broad category of legal and illegal drugs, ranging from prescription painkillers to heroin. In the last couple of years, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, much of the street-level heroin in the United States has been laced with illicit fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that is much cheaper to produce than heroin.

Felice Freyer of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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