With overdose deaths skyrocketing in the midst of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the Drug Enforcement Administration announced it’s unleashing a new, new response to the opioid epidemic. Critics say the DEA is just repackaging the same old solution in a new tin foil.
Opioid overdose deaths increased a staggering 38.4 percent in the 12-month period leading up to May 2020, and preliminary data hint at an even greater spike during coronavirus lockdowns.
The DEA’s new initiative, dubbed “Operation Engage,” is intended to replace and expand their 360 Strategy. That strategy exclusively targeted opioids, but this new measure is much broader in scope.
The agency, which has overseen hundreds of thousands of American deaths via opioids, claims its new initiative is different from what it’s done for 30 years in regards to opioids because it targets all illegal drugs and promotes engagement with local communities.
“This initiative will target the specific drug threat in the community, whether opioids like illicit fentanyl and prescription pills or stimulants like methamphetamine and cocaine,” Chris Evans, DEA acting administrator, said in a recent video announcement. “DEA will bring together community leaders, parents, teachers and others to focus on the same mission: saving lives.”
The DEA’s specific objectives include: connecting field offices with their communities, raising awareness of local drug threats and supporting local drug-free community coalitions.
But some experts doubt Operation Engage will curb overdose deaths. That’s because the last operation, 360, which was in place in 2020, saw the highest number of overdoses deaths recorded in a single year, according to recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.
The new measure is more or less a repackaged version of the 360 Strategy, according to Grey Gardner, a senior staff attorney at the Drug Policy Alliance.
“It seems like the same essential strategies that they’ve been using in the past under sort of a different name and different language that sounds like they’re going to focus more on education and then prevention, but you know, tucked in there is very much a focus on drug interdiction,” Gardner told The News Station.
He’s also concerned that the new initiative comes from a law enforcement agency, rather than a public health agency.
“They’ve packaged this as a response to a public health emergency. You know, we should have public health focused agencies that are scientifically driven leading the response on public health emergencies,” Gardner said.
Though unsurprised, Gardner is frustrated by the DEA’s current role in the fight against the opioid crisis.
“As we’ve seen over the past 12 months during the pandemic,” Gardner said, “If you have a public health emergency, you look to public health experts to lead the response, and you look to the public health experts to develop the messaging, not to the enforcement agencies.”