BY MARCO SERNA
Candidate For Congress
Today I am releasing the first of many position papers I will be issuing during the course of my campaign for the 3rd Congressional seat in New Mexico. It is my firm belief that voters not only need to know where their elected officials stand on the important issues of the day but also their underlying reasons.
The opioid epidemic is one of the most compelling issues facing our country today, yet it is an issue that has received little attention and even less action on the part of our public officials.
When I first ran for First Judicial District Attorney of Santa Fe, I made the opioid crisis in our community the central focus of my campaign. I pledged—and continue to pledge—to work tirelessly to treat non-violent drug offenders with a treatment-oriented approach to our deeply entrenched drug problem. As a progressive prosecutor, I promoted the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program that was already in place, which focuses on treatment and diversion, and was part of the community collective that helped expand the program to Rio Arriba County. The problems we face with drug intervention is so massive the only way we can solve it is by developing a partnership with the federal government and local care givers. It is one of the reasons why I have decided to run for Congress—to become a fierce advocate in Washington D.C. for Northern New Mexico.
Fact: the opioid epidemic is the deadliest drug-overdoes crisis in US history. Since the crisis began in the late 1990’s, more than 700,000 people have died from drug overdoses, which is about as many people who live in the 3rdCongressional district. The opioid epidemic has killed more Americans than guns or car accidents and is doing so at a pace faster than the H.I.V. epidemic did at its peak. At a rate of 175 deaths a day, the total number of opioid deaths now exceeds the number of Americans killed during the Vietnam war.
It saddens me that over the last decade our state has been either No.1 or No. 2 in the nation for drug overdose death rates. In 2017, there were 332 overdose deaths involving opioids in New Mexico—a rate of 16.7 deaths per 100,000 persons compared to the average national rate of 14.6 deaths per 100,000 persons. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, prescription opioids were involved in most deaths in 2017 with 171, followed by heroin with 144, and synthetic opioids other than methadone with 75 deaths. Roughly half of our state’s counties have an overdose death rate higher than the national average of 21.7.
In the latest ranking, New Mexico ranks 17th in the nation for drug overdose deaths, with a rate of 24.6 deaths per 100,000 people in 2017. Rio Arriba County leads the state in such deaths with a rate nearly four times the state and national averages.
Lastly, in 2017 the New Mexico Department of Health reported that NOWS (neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome) has increased 324% from 3.3 cases per 1,000 live births to 14.0 cases per 1,000 live births. While Hispanics accounted for the highest proportion of cases (48%), the highest increase occurred among American Indians/Alaska Natives with 698 percent.
Not only are we losing our family and friends to this epidemic, we are losing funds that could go to education and infrastructure. It is estimated that the opioid epidemic is costing the nation billions of dollars in economic burden. President Trump’s White House Council of Economic Advisors estimated that the opioid epidemic has cost the country over $500 billion in 2015 alone. It is one of the principle reasons why we have the largest prison population on the face of the planet.
In October 2017 the Trump administration declared a public health emergency over the opioid epidemic. The Trump administration focus was on building a wall to stop the flow of illicit opioids like heroin and fentanyl. This did little since most illegal drugs come from ports of entry. In addition, the Trump administration has tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act which would deny health benefits for treatment from hundreds of thousands of people with opioid addiction. I firmly believe the White House has failed in their primary mission to protect the citizens of the United States from this type of emergency!
To fight the opioid epidemic, I support the CARE ACT that Senator Warren and Representative Elijah Cummings introduced in Congress that would allocate $100 billion over 10 years to fight the opioid epidemic. I also support more research into alternative painkillers, including medical marijuana.
I support the CARE ACT because it has a comprehensive approach to solving the opioid epidemic. Money would be appropriated to go into funding innovative treatment models and necessary research, surveillance and training of health care staff. It would also support needle exchanges and other harm reduction services so long as there is evidence that a program would reduce overdose deaths and do not violate the law.
The only way to solve this problem is to act as we did to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Instead of a piecemeal approach we need a bold comprehensive approach much as we did when Congress passed the Ryan White Care Act two decades ago. Unfortunately, the Warren/Cummings bill has not moved far in Congress. When elected to Congress, I pledge to lead the fight for passage of the Warren/Cummings bill or some version thereof!
There are other things we can do to solve the opioid crisis in our state. I support medical marijuana laws as well as the expungement of the records of those arrested solely for possession of marijuana.
I will lead the effort to limit or virtually eliminate the use of prescription painkillers in emergency rooms and instead treat pain using alternative methods. Notably, this effort has been highlighted by St. Joseph’s Hospital in New Jersey where they have virtually eliminated prescription pain killers form their emergency department.
I agree with Senator Corey Booker that pharmaceutical companies should be held criminally liable for playing a role in the nation’s opioid crisis. In addition, I strongly support the almost 2,000 communities that have sued large pharmaceutical companies who have flooded their communities with opioids.
This position paper is the first of many that I will be making public during the course of my Congressional campaign. I believe that voters need to know exactly where their elected officials stand on the issues that will affect their lives. Please feel free to comment and provide other constructive ideas on how we can work together to solve this crisis.