Opioid Abuse Fight Is A Priority, And It's Personal For USDA Secretary

Sep 1, 2016

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks at the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony on August 30, 2016 with Chairman Arlan D. Melendez standing next to him.
Credit Anh Gray

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in chair of the White House Rural Council. He’s leading a national initiative on rural opioid addiction. On a recent visit to  Northern Nevada, he made a stop at the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. He then traveled to Las Vegas to give the keynote address at the state’s two-day drug abuse prevention summit hosted by Governor Brian Sandoval. Reno Public Radio’s Anh Gray talks with Secretary Vilsack to learn more about the opioid addiction crisis that’s gripping the nation.

Q: Nevada is the fourth state you’ve visited since May, leading President Obama’s national initiative on rural opioid addiction? Can you explain what this is?

A: First of all we have to put this in context, this is a serious problem that’s impacting and affecting people in every state of the country. I think opioid abuse is sort of an equal opportunity killer; over 28,000 people have died in the most recent year of statistics on fatalities. There’s significant concern as we’ve seen an increase in prescriptions for opioids and misuse of opioids by millions of Americans and now millions are addicted. We also know that opioids are the introductory drug, if you will, to ultimate heroin use. Eighty percent of all heroin users begin their use by the use of opioids. It’s an issue that needs to be addressed. The President’s focus is on basically four components: prevention,  treatment, recovery and criminal justice reform.  

Q: We’ve been hearing that the President is considering granting many non-violent drug offenders with clemency. Is that part of the overall national plan you’re talking about?

A: That’s part of the administration’s criminal justice reform package. I don’t think it’s necessarily related to the opioid issue. There’s a much larger issue in terms of decisions we’ve made in the past that have led to a substantial increase in incarceration and prison populations in the country. I think it’s an opportunity to rebalance our criminal justice system to focus on people who are committing dangerous crimes that are harmful to people—making sure we get those folks off the streets fairly and quickly—but making sure that those who are on the wrong side of the law because of a drug problem are given an opportunity to potentially turn their lives around by focusing more on treatment rather than punishment.

Q: President Obama has proposed spending more than $1 billion to target the opioid problem in this country. The money will go toward expanding access to treatment and Nevada would be eligible for $9 million dollars over two years. Some criticize that amount as insufficient to really tackle this problem. What’s your perspective?

A: Well, Health and Human Services announced an additional $53 million dedicated to expanding access to treatment and the availability of Naloxone and working to avoid overdose situations. Look, you have to make sure to properly balance the amount of resource that is available with a capacity of existing systems to be able to spend and invest those monies wisely. This is not a situation where if you had four, five, or six, or seven, or eight, or nine billion dollars that it would necessarily be invested wisely in a short period of time.

Q: Secretary Vilsack, fighting the opioid and substance abuse epidemic is not just a job for you, it’s also something very personal. Could you share your story?

A: I was fortunate. I started out life in an orphanage and I was adopted into a family. My mom, when I was young, struggled mightily with addiction. It may have started with a hospitalization, where she had her gall bladder removed and she was given medications and saw a downward spiral in her life for five or six years, where she was hospitalized a couple of times and attempted suicide. I really got to that point in her life where she had to make a decision whether she wanted live or die. It was a painful time for our family and mom would separate herself from us for weeks on end when she was drinking. She finally left the family and ultimately sought help. She became an incredibly courageous and important person in my life in terms of the example that she set.

But my mom, fortunately for her, when she made the decision to turn her life around, there were people to help. What’s painful for me to hear in the current situations and families where either their families couldn’t acknowledge the needed help, or when they did acknowledge it, there was no one there to provide the help and assistance, or there was no one prepared to understand. This is not a situation where it’s a simple thing. People try and fail multiple times before they finally succeed. This is heartbreaking to watch what’s happening to families; there’s got to be a better way to deal with this situation. I think it starts with understanding this is a disease and basically focusing on it in the same way we focus on cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, and all the other diseases that make life challenging.