- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 5, 2019

Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday told Americans who lost family members to the opioids crisis that President Trump “will not rest or relent” in the fight against addiction, from cracking down on drug cartels to keeping a stream of money flowing from Congress.

“We’re going to lean into this fight,” Mr. Pence told the group in an event attended exclusively by The Washington Times. “We’re with you in your resolve to be a part of the solution.”

The vice president stunned the intimate gathering at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building by entering the room and offering condolences on the cusp of the holiday season, saying that, as a father, he cannot “fathom their pain.”

But he urged them to stay vocal, as efforts to expand treatment, reel in addictive pills and crack down on drug traffickers chip away at a still-deep crisis.

“To the extent that you can stay engaged in this national debate, I encourage you to do it,” he said. “There are no more compelling voices than the voices of your families, no more compelling stories that continue to awaken the nation to things that can be done and are being done and should be done.”

The White House brought the families together to offer comfort and an update from the front lines of the epidemic. The session was a tearful one, though a current of hope and perseverance coursed through it, with parents saying they don’t want any more Americans to join their ranks.

“It’s the same story over and over. And I keep seeing it,” said Gayle Watkins, who lost her son, George “Tripp” Watkins, at age 24 after a Klonopin prescription for anxiety turned into a deeper problem.

Laura McHugh-Badura, of Wisconsin, said her son, Archie, self-medicated with marijuana before turning to opioids and dying of a heroin overdose in 2014. She said the U.S. needs to crack down on every chemical formulation of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s emerged as the number-one killer in the crisis.

Jennifer Tolson, of Richmond, Virginia, said parents wouldn’t keep heroin in an unlocked cabinet at home, so they shouldn’t leave prescription medications in one, either.

She said her son, Blaize, got hooked after raiding her pills, leading him to forfeit a football scholarship at Penn State University before losing his life to heroin at age 23 in 2016.

Jennifer and Kevin Derr, also of Richmond, have committed themselves to fighting stigma around addiction after losing their son, Billy, at age 24.

And there was Donald Mihalek, a former Secret Service agent who lost his sister, Denise.

“Don protected several presidents but he couldn’t protect his sister,” his wife, Valerie Mihalek, said in an emotional address to the room.

Mr. Mihalek said there should be a national standard for treatment so insurance programs aren’t paying for fly-by-night treatment options that don’t work.

White House “drug czar” James W. Caroll, addressing the group with a kind of empathy and emotion that’s unusual in Washington, said the administration’s new website, FindTreatment.gov, only endorses state-licensed treatment providers. He also touted efforts to train more specialists in addiction treatment.

Congress passed bipartisan opioids legislation in 2018 to expand treatment options and reel in the rampant flow of pain bills, building on a wave of action that began at the end of President Obama’s term and reached new heights under Mr. Trump, who declared drug addiction to be a public health emergency in 2017.

Their efforts are starting to pay off.

Provisional federal data say deaths from drug overdose dropped slightly, to 68,000 in 2018 compared to 70,200 in 2017. It is the first year-to-year decrease of its kind in nearly three decades.

Opioid-related deaths showed a very slim decline, to 47,236 from 47,600.

Many of those dying from opioids today started on prescription drugs but turned to cheaper heroin that is laced with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic that is often made in China or Mexico and shipped across borders.

Hundreds of cities, counties and states have sued opioid makers and distributors, resulting in talks over a potential resolution that could resemble the Big Tobacco settlement of the late 1990s. Also, federal prosecutors in New York have subpoenaed several drug companies as part of a potential criminal investigation into their alleged roles in sparking the crisis.

Mr. Caroll told the Times he is pleased that widespread efforts to rein in high doses of opioids at the pharmacy counter are causing the pill-driven aspect of the crisis to plateau, though said policymakers and the public can’t take their eye off the ball.

“We could easily slip back,” he said in an interview. “The harder we push, the more we’ll see success.”

Nancy and Michael Gray, of the greater New York City area, said their daughter Amanda self-medicated intermittently because of a mental illness.

At 24 years old, she was killed by a dose of pure fentanyl that she did not realize she was ingesting, due to a “bait-and-switch” by the person who gave her the substance. Her parents remembered her as someone who “loved big” and deployed trademark hugs.

“When she hugged you, you were being loved and you knew it,” Mrs. Gray said.

Deaths tied to synthetic opioids like fentanyl rose from 28,400 in 2017 to 31,600 in 2018, so the administration is pressuring other nations to do more.

The administration is cautiously optimistic that China is cracking down on clandestine labs in their country, citing recent prosecutions and moves to schedule forms of fentanyl as illegal.

“Almost all the drugs that are killing Americans are coming in from outside the United States. That’s why I went to China to tell them, ‘Cut it out.’ That we mean it, the president is serious. And they responded,” Mr. Carroll said.

Mr. Carroll said he will head to Mexico in the new year to address drug flows across the southern border, saying the U.S. stands ready to assist as Mr. Trump vocally ramps up pressure on cartels.

In the meantime, Mr. Carroll said his secret weapon in the fight is staff member Tom Murphy, a retired Virginia state police trooper who worked in narcotics but lost his own son, Jason, to an overdose after a workplace injury led to opioid addiction.

Mr. Carroll and Mr. Murphy crossed paths decades ago when they both worked in Virginia. The drug czar said he hired Mr. Muphy as his assistant director for state, local and tribal affairs because he wanted parents who’ve lost children to addiction to be represented on his staff.

Mr. Murphy told the group that after rehab and an arrest on drug violations, his son died from a heroin-and-fentanyl overdose at age 21.

“Blond hair, blue eyes — he was a lady-killer,” Mr. Murphy said. “And I miss him every day.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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