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Kellyanne Conway The New “Opioid Czar”

Kellyanne Conway To Lead Fight Against Opioid Crisis

A new all-American “Opioid Czar” has arrived in the news this week.  President Trump has named Kellyanne Conway, his former campaign manager, to assume the leadership, or “Czar” role, for the President’s task force on the opioid crisis currently devastating America.  As the “Opioid Czar”, Conway will be in charge of implementing the action plan laid out in the Presidential commission on America’s opioid epidemic.

What is the Opioid Czar?

Although various media outlets have been using this name to refer to Conway’s new role, it should be noted that it is not an official title of position, and is unrelated to recent news about Donald Trump and Russia.  And while we now have an “Opioid Czar”, the term shouldn’t be confused with “Drug Czar,” the commonly-used term for the Director of the US Office of National Drug Control Policy.  The “Drug Czar” position was started by former President Nixon, who nominated Dr. Jerome Jaffe to begin Nixon’s War on Drugs.  Dr. Jaffe was a psychiatrist and pioneering addiction expert.  Indeed, he was one of the early proponents of methadone treatment for heroin dependency, which became a key part of America’s drug policy (source).  Since then, every president has appointed a “Drug Czar” to the Director position to oversee and update America’s drug policies alongside the changing dynamics of law enforcement and addiction medicine.  Right now, the actual Director position remains vacant, which may complicate matters now that Kellyanne Conway has been deemed “Opioid Czar”.

Trump’s initial pick for the position, Rep. Tom Marino, had no public health or medical background, but did spend some time as a district attorney before running for office. However, Marino withdrew himself from consideration after possible conflicts of interest emerged. In 2016, Rep. Marino had a key role in passing a bill that was particularly friendly to pharmaceutical companies with financial stakes in opioid medications (source). The bill stripped some of the DEA’s power to more closely regulate and track the distribution of prescription painkillers.

Fortunately, Conway will take on the position of “Opioid Czar” with no record of ties to pharmaceutical companies. Instead, she brings a professional background working primarily as a polling researcher and advisor to conservative politicians. Although Conway attended law school, she joined the polling firm Luntz Research Companies after graduating and soon started her own polling and consulting firm instead of practicing law. Her professional experience has included analyzing and understand demographic trends, which are crucial components in successful public health policy. However, Conway’s work in that area has been exclusively related to the fields of consumer sales and politics. Kellyanne Conway has no direct experience with criminal law, drug policy, or addiction medicine (source).

What does this New “Opioid Czar” Really Mean for those Struggling with Addiction?

Forty years after the first Presidentially-mandated attempts to deal with opioid dependance, the complexities of the opioid problem have exploded with the size and scope of addicted Americans. Although the reasoning behind Conway’s new position at the head of the battle against opioid addiction remains somewhat unclear, it does signal that the President’s commission on the opioid epidemic may be moving forward on its promise to take action. To date, addiction specialists, first responders, families of addicts, and politicians from the most stricken states have decried the commission’s lack of action or push for further funding to support the fight against the opioid crisis (source). Delays are literally costing lives.  Last year some 60,000 Americans died from opioid-related causes. That’s over 160 people every day.

Some drug policy experts have cited Conway’s close relationship with Trump as cause to be optimistic (source) that the government can stop merely discussing the opioid epidemic and move toward life-saving action. Many other policymakers and top addiction specialists remain skeptical, especially after Kellyanne Conway’s comments earlier this year that addicts need more “will”, not funding for treatment, to get clean (source). Time will tell if Conway really can organize an actionable effort as “Opioid Czar”.  Meanwhile, Americans everywhere will continue to struggle with deadly addiction to heroin and opioid medications.

Image source: The New York Times

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