The Democratic Party Policies on Substance Abuse

As Americans prepare for a presidential election in the face of a heroin epidemic, we examine the democrats who have shaped and continue to influence United States drug policy.

The nation’s challenges with drug abuse and addiction have evolved considerably since 1970, and so have the Democratic Party’s views on substance abuse and addiction. Drug addiction — once seen as a moral deviance — is now being recognized as a legitimate disease that affects millions of Americans across all economic and social classes. Key democratic figures such as former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton played critical roles in shifting the party’s stance on drug abuse to what it is today: one that is focused on treatment and prevention efforts rather than incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders. Legislation from congressmen including former Sens. Ted Kennedy, Harold Hughes and Vice President Joe Biden helped establish protocols that support Americans with substance use disorders and prevent further drug abuse harm.
President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama supports the fight against substance abuse in the United States.

As the country faces an unprecedented opioid and heroin epidemic, President Barack Obama has continued to support substance abuse treatment and prevention efforts to combat American drug use. During his presidency, Obama has called for an end to the war on drugs and has supported legislation to improve treatment access for individuals struggling with substance use. In July, he signed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016, which provided $181 million for prevention programs and expanded access to treatment and opioid overdose reversal medications such as naloxone. The Democrats hope to continue to strengthen these efforts over the next four years with Hillary Clinton as president. “Plain and simple, drug and alcohol addiction is a disease, not a moral failing — and we must treat it as such,” Secretary Clinton said in an op-ed piece for the New Hampshire Union Leader. During the current Congress, multiple drug abuse and prevention bills sponsored by Democrats have become laws or passed the House or Senate, and more than 300 have reached committee consideration. Going forward, the Democratic Party hopes to implement policies that will have a profound impact on preventing drug abuse and increasing access to treatment for those with substance use disorders.

Democratic Policies on Drug Abuse and Addiction

During the 1970s, the Democratic Party and Carter supported a platform that focused on tackling addiction and drug suppliers. The 1976 Democratic Party Platform pushed for a policy that was harsh on drug criminals and improved drug rehab treatment for Americans. “We must break up organized crime syndicates dealing in drugs, take necessary action to get drug pushers off the streets, provide drug users with effective rehabilitation programs, including medical assistance, ensure that all young people are aware of the costs of a life of drug dependency, and use worldwide efforts to stop international production and trafficking in illicit drugs,” the 1976 Democratic Party Platform said.
“We must help state, local, and tribal law enforcement work together to combat and prevent drug crime and drug and alcohol abuse, which are a blight on our communities.”
The 2008 Democratic Party Platform
The Democrats’ efforts to prevent drug abuse and expand treatment took a back seat in the 1980s, with former Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush serving during this era. During this time, the Democratic Party maintained its tough-on-crime approach and focused its platform on increasing social and drug prevention services and expanding access to substance use treatment. “We must treat addiction as a health problem and seek flexibility in administering Medicare and Medicaid for substance abuse treatment, especially alcohol and drug services,” said the 1980 Democratic Party Platform. The Democrats’ stance on substance abuse changed again in the 1990s under Bill Clinton. The 1992 Democratic Party Platform aimed to combat substance abuse on multiple fronts, including helping those with co-occurring HIV and substance use disorders receive treatment, increasing prevention efforts, stopping narcotraffickers and reducing the American demand for illegal drugs.
President Bill Clinton in the Oval Office

President Bill Clinton increased efforts for addiction prevention and treatment during his first term.

“We will expand drug counselling and treatment for those who need it, intensify efforts to educate our children at the earliest ages to the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse and curb demand from the street corner to the penthouse suite so that the U.S., with 5 percent of the world’s population, no longer consumes 50 percent of the world’s illegal drugs,” the 1992 Democratic Party Platform said. The 1996 platform built upon the previous one, highlighting Bill Clinton’s first-term accomplishments fighting addiction and outlining plans for future drug war efforts. Under Bill Clinton’s direction and the supervision of Gen. Barry McCaffrey, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the 1996 platform boasted “an aggressive four-part strategy to reach young children and prevent drug use in the first place; to catch and punish drug users and dealers; to provide treatment to those who need help; and to cut drugs off at the source before they cross the border and pollute our neighborhoods.”
“We will expand drug counselling and treatment for those who need it, intensify efforts to educate our children at the earliest ages to the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse and curb demand from the street corner to the penthouse suite.”
The 1992 Democratic Party Platform
The platform also called for adults in the United States to lead by example and to show children “that drugs are wrong, they are illegal and they are deadly.” After losing the oval office during the George W. Bush administration, the Democrats recharged in 2008 with a new platform under then-candidate Barack Obama. The 2008 Democratic Party Platform aimed to combat drug abuse through a number of prevention and support initiatives. It called for better cooperation with major narcotic trafficking countries — such as Mexico, Brazil and Colombia — and increased support for American families in an effort to prevent future drug abuse among youth. It also aimed to end the cycle of drug abuse and drug-related crime. “We must help state, local, and tribal law enforcement work together to combat and prevent drug crime and drug and alcohol abuse, which are a blight on our communities. We will restore funding for the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program and expand the use of drug courts and rehabilitation programs for first-time, non-violent drug offenders,” the 2008 Democratic Party Platform said. The 2012 platform built upon the 2008 platform, calling for more efforts to stop international drug traffickers and further support for established drug prevention and treatment programs. It also supported policy change aimed at ending racial disparities in drug offender sentencing.

Democratic Presidents and Substance Abuse Legislation

Since 1977, three Democrats have been president of the United States: Carter, Clinton and Obama. Each of these men faced a different substance abuse climate characterized by unique drug epidemics during their presidential era. The policies and decisions enacted during their presidential terms shaped the way Americans perceive drug addiction today.

Jimmy Carter

In the first year of his presidential term, Carter outlined a plan to congress to combat the growing drug abuse epidemic. He identified key prevention efforts for the United States to focus on, including international cooperation, research and treatment.
President Jimmy Carter

President Jimmy Carter outlined a plan in the first year of his term to combat the drug abuse epidemic.

“We can no longer concern ourselves merely with keeping illicit drugs out of the United States, but we must join with other nations to deal with this global problem by combating drug traffickers and sharing our knowledge and resources to help treat addiction wherever it occurs,” Carter said in a message to Congress. Carter said it was time to shift the focus of government drug prevention efforts from all substances to the most harmful substances to Americans. “Since heroin, barbiturates and other sedative-hypnotic drugs account for 90 percent of the deaths from drug abuse, they should receive our principal emphasis,” said Carter.

Carter’s Six-Point Plan for Drug Abuse

International Cooperation

Carter’s plan called for greater cooperation between the United States and countries where the majority of drugs that enter the United States originate, such as Thailand, Colombia and Mexico. He also promoted greater intelligence sharing, sharing expertise of drug treatment between foreign governments and greater financial and employment stability in drug-producing countries.
Law Enforcement
The plan called for more law enforcement attention on drug-trafficking organizations and individuals, greater allocation of resources to stopping drug traffickers and increased financial penalties for drug violators.

Decriminalization of Marijuana

Carter supported decriminalizing marijuana. He did not support marijuana legalization but felt very strongly that we shouldn’t define someone who uses marijuana as a criminal. “Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself; and where they are, they should be changed,” Carter said in his message to Congress. He also supported legislation that would eliminate all federal criminal penalties for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana.

Drug Treatment

The administration’s primary goal regarding substance abuse was to “widen the scope and improve the effectiveness of federal drug treatment programs.” This meant rehabilitation treatment would continue past the immediate effects of drugs and include job training to help individuals with substance use disorders reintegrate into society.

Drug Research

Carter called for federal research into alcohol, tobacco and a variety of other drugs to reach a better understanding of addiction.

Administrative Action

The plan also outlined changes in federal regulations, administrative practices and enforcement to enact realistic drug abuse reform. Carter called for greater government focus on drug abuse. He aimed to prevent the use of barbiturates, in particular, and to re-examine the medical effectiveness of frequently abused prescription drugs.
Under the Carter administration, the availability of heroin in the United States declined by 44 percent, and heroin-related injuries declined by 50 percent. Carter’s wife, Rosalynn Carter, and former first lady Betty Ford were key advocates for substance abuse treatment and helped bring addiction and substance abuse to the forefront of the American public. Kath Delaney is founder and principal of Madera Group, a social change agency that works to advance public policy and advocate for social good. She has worked on nine presidential campaigns for Democratic candidates and is an elected delegate for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Over her career, Delaney has worked extensively with the Democratic Party on policies regarding substance abuse and disabilities. Delaney is also in recovery from alcohol addiction with nearly 30 years of sobriety. To Delaney, Rosalynn Carter and Ford were two of the biggest advocates for mental health and substance abuse prevention during the Carter administration. “Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter, two first ladies, had an instrumental role in educating the American public in demystifying and destigmatizing addiction, substance abuse and mental health,” Delaney told “I think those women and their husbands did an incredible amount to really legitimize the suffering [Americans with substance use disorders face] and the mainstreaming of treatment.” The Carters’ battle against substance abuse did not end with Carter’s presidency. In 1982, they founded the Carter Center to advocate for individuals with mental health and substance abuse disorders.

Bill Clinton

The Bill Clinton administration’s impact on substance abuse is seen both in positive and negative light. During his presidency, Clinton strengthened drug courts, established drug testing for student athletes and federal offenders, increased anti-drug funding to historic levels and launched Operation Safe Home in order to “protect the law-abiding residents of public housing from violent criminals and drug dealers who use their homes as a base for illegal activities,” according to the 1996 Democratic Party Platform. During Clinton’s first presidential term, the number of Americans who used cocaine decreased 30 percent. However, casual drug use among teens and young people increased.
President Bill Clinton

President Bill Clinton’s administration had both positive and negative outcomes for substance abuse.

In 1994, Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act into law, which established the death penalty for drug kingpins and increased efforts to reduce crime in the United States. It also introduced a “three strikes” rule that gave mandatory life sentences to repeat offenders of serious violent crimes on their third conviction. “We had administrations, Democratic and Republican, that put a lot of those folks in jail, and now we realize in retrospect that maybe that wasn’t the right thing to do,” said Delaney. Critics of the law claimed it was too harsh and incentivized law enforcement to arrest people. Former Rep. Tony Coelho, D-Calif., who served in the House from 1979 to 1989 and sponsored the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, says Clinton’s policy toward drug abuse was not as progressive as it could have been, but there were still major addiction treatment accomplishments during his presidency. “Clinton wasn’t totally there to begin with but kept moving it as he went along,” Coelho told in regard to Clinton’s substance abuse policies. “What Clinton was able to do was to get insurance companies to support drug treatments for rehab.” Clinton passed the Mental Health Parity Act of 1996, which prohibited group health plans and insurers from imposing annual or lifetime dollar limits on mental health benefits that are more restrictive than the limits for medical or surgical benefits they provide. This proved to be the foundation of the Mental Health and Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, which expanded on the Mental Health Parity Act by extending the same protections to substance abuse care benefits.

Barack Obama

Pres. Barack Obama

President Barack Obama has embraced rehabilitation over incarceration.

During his presidency, Obama has taken arguably the most progressive stance on substance abuse of any president in history, fully embracing rehabilitation over incarceration. The Obama administration made it a priority to reduce the stigma of addiction and to educate the public that substance addiction is a disease, not a moral deficiency. Throughout his presidency, Obama stressed that prevention is the most cost-effective way to combat drug addiction. He also recognized that prevention starts locally and must encompass all areas of the community, every age group and every demographic. Each community deals with challenges specific to its area, which need to be addressed on a unique basis. The Obama administration worked to empower local communities to take on prevention efforts by providing funding and support to law enforcement and prevention organizations. Obama also sought improvements in Americans’ ability to identify substance use disorders and stage early interventions. Knowing that the earlier an individual starts using substances the more likely they are to develop a substance use disorder later in life, Obama allocated funding and created support programs designed to intervene in situations where young people are at high risk of developing a substance use disorder.
“This disease can touch any American in any community, and my administration has made combatting substance use disorders a priority.”
Barack Obama
Obama’s 2010 health care law had a massive impact on substance abuse treatment. The Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as “Obamacare,” enacted reforms that made health insurance more widely available, lowered health care costs, widened the scope of available health services and enhanced the quality of care for all Americans. The ACA includes substance use disorders as one of the ten elements of essential health benefits, and it requires coverage for addiction treatment under plans sold on health insurance exchanges or provided by Medicaid. As a result, millions of Americans gained access to substance use disorder treatment, counseling, intervention services and mental health services for the first time. “This disease can touch any American in any community, and my administration has made combatting substance use disorders a priority,” Obama said in a presidential proclamation that named September 2016 National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month. “Under the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies must now cover substance use disorder services as essential health benefits.” The extended care for substance use disorders included greater access to medication-assisted treatments such as naltrexone, a medication that blocks opioid euphoria among users, and naloxone, an opioid overdose antidote.
President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama proclaiming September 2016 National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month.

Obama also passed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 to reduce racial disparities in sentencing for drug crimes. The Fair Sentencing Act aimed to reduce jail time and criminal penalties for nonviolent drug offenders and ultimately alleviate the rate of incarceration, particularly in communities of color. The overall goal of this legislation is to strengthen communities and families that would have fathers, mothers or family members behind bars due to drug offenses under existing drug laws. Studies from researchers across the United States show that the most effective substance abuse deterrent is to have a parent highly involved in a child’s life. Obama also looked to make up for the damage already caused by outdated drug policies. As of Aug. 30, 2016, Obama has commuted the sentences of 673 inmates in an effort to give a second chance to nonviolent drug offenders. “As successful as we’ve been in reducing crime in this country, the extraordinary rate of incarceration of nonviolent offenders has created its own set of problems that are devastating,” Obama said during a news conference in August. “Entire communities have been ravaged where largely men, but some women, are taken out of those communities,” he said. “Kids are now growing up without parents. It perpetuates a cycle of poverty and disorder in their lives. It is disproportionately young men of color that are being arrested at higher rates, charged and convicted at higher rates, and imprisoned for longer sentences.” Nearly a third of the 673 commutations were for individuals serving life sentences.

Drug Legislation Sponsored by Democrats in Congress

Each decade since 1970 has been characterized by an epidemic of drug abuse. The 1970s faced heroin and cocaine. The 1980s faced cocaine and crack. The 1990s faced heroin, ecstasy and crystal meth. The 2000s faced prescription drugs and opioids. Through the changing drug climate, various Democrats have sponsored and passed legislation aimed at combating drug abuse during these decades.


Sen. Harold Hughes, D-Iowa, served from 1969 to 1975 and was viewed as one of the original champions for those fighting substance addiction. “During that period, Senator Hughes from Iowa was a huge advocate in pushing [substance abuse policy change],” said Coelho. He was also a recovering alcoholic and was known affectionately by the nickname “Mr. Addiction” because of the work he did to help people with substance use disorders.
Senator Harold Hughes

Senator Harold Hughes was one of the original pioneers in the fight against substance abuse.

Hughes was seen as one of the pioneers of removing the stigma associated with substance abuse by talking openly and honestly about his struggles with alcohol and advocating for substance abuse policy change. He also sponsored and co-sponsored many bills pertaining to substance abuse prevention and treatment during his time in office. When Hughes died in 1996, Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., told the journal Addiction that Hughes’s vigorous pursuit of fair treatment for people battling addiction was legendary. “He had approached his own problem with honesty and frankness at a time when the rest of America discussed alcohol abuse in whispered tones behind closed doors,” Kennedy said. Another key figure was Sen. William Hathaway of Maine. Hathaway served from 1973 to 1979 and sponsored three bills that became laws, all of which pertained to the prevention and treatment of drug abuse. Donald W. Riegle Jr. of Michigan served in the House of Representatives from 1967 to 1976 and in the Senate from 1976 to1995. In the 1970s, during the Carter administration, Riegle sponsored two laws that aimed to assist those with substance use disorders and prevent substance abuse.

The Comprehensive Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation Act of 1970

This legislation — also known as the Hughes Act — authorized a federal alcohol abuse and alcoholism prevention and treatment program, and it established the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

An Act to Amend the Comprehensive Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation Act of 1970, and for Other Purposes

This act made it United States policy to “approach alcohol abuse and alcoholism from a comprehensive community care standpoint.” It also extended funding for government-facilitated rehab treatment and improved state policies toward alcoholism treatment, prevention and rehabilitation.

An Act to Amend the Drug Abuse Office and Treatment Act of 1972, and for Other Purposes

This was the first bill sponsored by Hathaway that became a law. This act made “it the policy of the United States to significantly reduce the incidence, as well as the social and personal costs, of drug abuse.” Under this law, the Office of Drug Abuse Policy and the role of executive director of that office was established. The executive director provides evaluations and recommendations on appropriate drug prevention actions to the necessary government entities. The act extended funding for drug prevention initiatives created under the Drug Abuse Office and Treatment Act of 1972 through 1978. It expanded research on substances of abuse and established legislation to end discrimination against drug abusers seeking medical help.

Drug Abuse Office, Prevention and Treatment Amendments

This bill enacted two amendments to the Drug Abuse Office and Treatment Act of 1972. It extended funding for treatment and prevention programs and established policy to help create reform based on expert assessments by appointed officials.

Drug Abuse Prevention, Treatment, and Rehabilitation Act of 1979

This act was a major reform in the United States policy toward drug abuse treatment and prevention. Under this law, the Office of Drug Abuse Policy was abolished and state and local government drug prevention requirements were expanded. It also expanded the authority of the Secretary of Health and allocated resources to address elderly substance abuse. The responsibilities of the National Institute on Drug Abuse were expanded under the act to include finding prevention strategies that could be replicated at a community level and improving research on drug abuse trends and patterns.

Comprehensive Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1979

This law amended the Comprehensive Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation Act of 1970 to include the development of prevention programs as well as occupational prevention and treatment programs. In addition, it required the director of the NIAAA to develop programs and policies that focus on the needs of underserved populations.


Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, served in the House from 1948 to 1955 and in the Senate from 1971 to 1993. He sponsored legislation that aimed to control the flow of drugs and deter those who trafficked them. Rep. James Wright Jr., D-Texas, served in the House from 1955 to 1989 and sponsored the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, one of the most influential substance abuse prevention and treatment bills of the 1980s. Sen. Ted Kennedy served from 1962 to 2009 and was a strong advocate for American health care reform. During his tenure, Kennedy sponsored dozens of bills that improved drug abuse treatment and prevention efforts.

Aviation Drug-Trafficking Control Act of 1984

This law required the Federal Aviation Administration to revoke the airman certificate and aircraft registration of any person convicted of a crime involving controlled substances other than simple possession.

Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created drug research programs, established the death penalty for specific drug-related offenses and increased international drug trafficking prevention efforts. It provided funding for drug prevention efforts and law enforcement through confiscated drug trafficking money. It also provided additional funding for law enforcement, created grants for prevention and education programs and established deportation for legal and illegal immigrants who violate drug possession laws. The law also sought to reduce the demand for drugs in the United States by providing improvements to treatment access and additional resources for those with substance use disorders.

Health Omnibus Extension of 1988

This large, comprehensive bill addressed dozens of American health issues, including efforts aimed at combating substance abuse. Under the Health Omnibus Extension of 1988, access to drug treatment, counseling, health and substance abuse education and prevention for those with HIV improved significantly. The act also allocated funding for mental health and substance abuse services for homeless people.


Rep. Dante Fascell, D-Fla., served in the House of Representatives from 1955 to 1993. The last bill he sponsored that became a law was the International Narcotics Control Act of 1992. Rep. Sam Gejdenson, D-Conn., who served in the House from 1981 to 2001, built on Fascell’s policy by sponsoring the International Narcotics Control Corrections Act of 1994.

International Narcotics Control Act of 1992

This act provided funding for law enforcement and government prevention entities fighting international drug trafficking. It also allocated resources such as funding, military support and education to other countries on the forefront of the narcotics trafficking battleground.

International Narcotics Control Corrections Act of 1994

This law redefined a “major illicit drug producing country” as one that cultivated or harvested 1,000 hectares or more of opium poppy or coca per year or 5,000 hectares of cannabis per year. It also provided assistance to foreign countries ill-equipped to prevent drug production and trafficking and waived all restrictions on the type of assistance the United States could provide to these countries.


Vice President Joe Biden, former senator of Delaware, served in the Senate from 1973 to 2009. In 2004, he sponsored the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 2004, which amended the Controlled Substances Act to revise the definition of anabolic steroids and established science-based research and education programs focused on steroids. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., served in the House from 1983 to 1997 and become a Senator in 1997, an office that he still holds today. In the early 2000s, Durbin sponsored two acts that helped prevent drug production and abuse in the United States. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, served in the House from 1997 to 2013 and sponsored legislation that looked to reduce narcotrafficking through the United States borders. Delaney says that the Democratic Party has made great strides toward combating substance abuse in the United States through legislation over the past 30 years. “I think the Democratic Party has been more active in forward thinking about how to develop and implement social policies that will help people heal and transform and become active members in society again, but we have a long way to go,” Delaney said.

Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 2004

This act widened the scope of what is considered an anabolic steroid in the United States, established policies for prevention and called for harsher criminal penalties pertaining to anabolic steroid use.

Methamphetamine Production Prevention Act of 2008

This law required that the sellers and purchasers of legal chemicals that can be used to make methamphetamine chronicle the sale and movement of these chemicals in an electronic or written logbook.

Fair Sentencing Act of 2010

In an effort to reduce racial disparities in drug crime sentencing, this act increased the amount of cocaine-based substances required to impose mandatory minimum prison terms for trafficking. It also increased financial penalties for drug trafficking. The act eliminated a five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence for first-time possession of crack cocaine, increased sentences for offenders convicted of a violent crime related to drug trafficking and directed the U.S. Sentencing Commission to review and recommend changes to drug sentencing policies.

Border Tunnel Prevention Act of 2012

This act established criminal penalties for individuals who finance or construct border tunnels for drug smuggling or money laundering purposes. It also charged the Department of Homeland Security with continued outreach efforts to prevent tunnel construction along the border between the United States and Mexico.

Recent Drug Legislation from Democrats

Recent legislation addressing substance abuse has been aimed at combating the escalating opioid epidemic that is ravaging the country. Some of the main focuses for Democrats have been to improve treatment access and to eliminate the stigma associated with substance abuse. A major accomplishment for the Democrats this Congress was passing the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016. Authored by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., the legislation was enacted on July 22, 2016. “This bill treats addiction like the illness it is,” Whitehouse said in a press release on his Congressional website. “The bill will help states give law enforcement officers, health care providers, family members and all those on the front lines of this battle a better shot at success.”
The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act aims to:
  • Increase opioid prevention and education efforts — particularly among teens and guardians
  • Make naloxone (an opioid overdose antidote) more accessible to law enforcement and first responders
  • Provide resources and treatment for incarcerated Americans with substance use disorders
  • Increase prescription medication disposal sites to prevent prescription drug abuse
  • Establish an evidence-based opioid and heroin rehab and intervention program and promote substance use disorder treatment across the United States
  • Improve prescription drug monitoring systems to better track the distribution of prescription medications
Despite the positive steps the law takes, some Democrats — including President Obama — hoped to accomplish more. In a statement from the White House, Obama said the law includes modest steps to address the opioid epidemic but does not provide appropriate funds for treatment. “Given the scope of this crisis, some action is better than none,” Obama said. Many other Democrats have recently introduced bills aimed at fighting the drug addiction epidemic in the United States as well.
Rep. Bill Foster

Congressman Bill Foster is working to better the federal addiction policy.

Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill., has been aggressive in his pursuit of bettering the federal drug addiction policy. During the current Congress, Foster introduced multiple drug policy bills that are currently in various stages of legislation. Foster’s other bills include the Opioid Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 2015, the Expanding Opportunities for Recovery Act of 2015 and the Examining Opioid Treatment Infrastructure Act of 2016. The Examining Opioid Treatment Infrastructure Act of 2016 passed the House in May 2016 and was advanced to the Senate. If enacted, it will require the Comptroller General of the United States to evaluate and submit a report to Congress about the outpatient and inpatient treatment capacity, availability and needs of the United States. Foster also introduced the Medicaid Coverage for Addiction Recovery Expansion Act, a bill that would widen access to substance abuse treatment for those struggling to receive proper care. “If we are serious about fighting back against drug addiction, we need to align our policies with our present-day understanding of addiction as a treatable medical condition,” Foster said in a press release on his Congressional website. “The Medicaid CARE Act is designed to get care to patients who need it the most.”

Other Notable Bills Introduced by Congress

Other bills aimed at preventing drug abuse and helping those with substance use disorders have been introduced during the current Congress and are awaiting action from the Senate. Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., introduced the Co-Prescribing to Reduce Overdoses Act of 2016, which passed in the House on May 11, 2016.
Rep. John Sarbanes

Congressman John Sarbanes introduced a bill to increase access to opioid reversal drugs.

This bill would establish a grant program for increasing access to opioid reversal drugs such as naloxone for individuals at high risk of overdose, including those who receive an opioid prescription. The bill would also provide funding for prevention and treatment programs. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., introduced the Improving Treatment for Pregnant and Postpartum Women Act of 2016 in October 2015. The bill would amend the Public Health Service Act to reauthorize residential substance use disorder treatment programs for pregnant and postpartum women through fiscal year 2021. It would also require the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment to establish a grant program to support treatment centers that care for pregnant or postpartum women diagnosed with a substance use disorder. The bill passed in the House in May 2016. Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., introduced the Reducing Unused Medications Act of 2016 in February. This bill would allow pharmacists to partially fill prescriptions for schedule II controlled substances, such as opioids, to help reduce the supply of prescription drugs in American homes. The bill passed in the House on May 11.

The Democratic Party and Future Drug Policy

The Democrats’ policy on drug abuse and addiction is still evolving, and under Hillary Clinton it will place emphasis on combating opioid abuse. “We must confront the epidemic of drug and alcohol addiction, specifically the opioid crisis and other drugs plaguing our communities, by vastly expanding access to prevention and treatment, supporting recovery, helping community organizations and promoting better practices by prescribers,” said the 2016 Democratic Party Platform. The platform says the Democratic Party will encourage the full recovery and integration of those with substance use disorders. The platform also calls for greater access to addiction treatment services and improved insurance coverage for substance use disorders. Substance abuse education is also a key focus moving forward. The platform states Americans should “do more to educate our youth, as well as their families, teachers, coaches, mentors and friends, to intervene early to prevent drug and alcohol abuse and addiction,” and calls for evidence-based, individualized prevention programs. Coelho and other Democrats believe the key to fighting drug abuse is to end the stigma faced by those with addictions. The party hopes to accomplish this with Hillary Clinton as president. “The most important thing is the stigma,” said Coelho. “If you have a president of the United States who supports and articulates what needs to be done, you start to eliminate the stigma. That’s key to getting anything done.”

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton Speaking in New York

Hillary Rodham Clinton plans to increase substance abuse prevention and treatment efforts if she is elected president.

During her campaign, Hillary Clinton has traveled the country and has seen the negative effects drug addiction has on Americans across all demographics and socio-economic lines. “She’s seen the suffering firsthand from all these communities that she’s going around to around the country on the rope lines,” Delaney said. “Mothers, fathers, sisters — coming up to her like ‘What do we do? How do we get our son or daughter treatment?’” As a result, she has made fighting the opioid epidemic and addiction a key point of her political platform for the presidential election. Clinton’s vision for combating substance abuse includes five focus points:
  • Prevention

    Following in the footsteps of Obama, Clinton believes that prevention starts at the community level. Clinton’s plan includes creating school-based prevention programs that are developmentally appropriate, community support systems and leadership programs to help reduce the number of youth who begin to use substances.
  • Treatment and Recovery

    Clinton aims to expand the access to higher quality, ongoing drug and alcohol abuse treatment to ensure those in recovery stay in recovery. She stresses that overcoming a substance use disorder takes long-term continuous treatment and support. She plans to expand inpatient and outpatient treatment services, increase the number of trained substance abuse care providers and enforce mental health and addiction parity laws to ensure that insurance and finances do not create treatment barriers for Americans who need help.
  • First Responders

    Another priority is to ensure first responders have access to naloxone to reverse opioid overdoses. At a time when the country is experiencing an opioid epidemic and millions of Americans are addicted to medications such as hydrocodone and oxycodone, equipping emergency personnel with naloxone will save lives.
  • Prescribers

    Clinton plans to establish mandatory training for licensed prescribers. She will use prescription drug monitoring programs to treat patients with chronic pain appropriately and to identify patients who are at risk of, or already experiencing, addiction.
  • Criminal Justice Reform

    Clinton will continue advancing the ideological shift that drug addiction is a health issue, not a criminal issue. Under this belief, she will prioritize rehabilitation over incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders and reduce the overwhelming prison populations made up of those offenders.
“We should be saying enough is enough,” Clinton said in an op-ed piece for the New Hampshire Union Leader. “It’s time we recognize as a nation that for too long we have had a quiet epidemic on our hands.” If Clinton is elected president, she plans to launch a $7.5 billion fund to support drug prevention and treatment programs at the state and federal level over the next 10 years. She also plans to increase the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant by $2.5 billion over 10 years to expand access to substance abuse treatment, improve efforts to address veteran substance abuse and direct the attorney general to issue guidance on prioritizing rehabilitation treatment over incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders. “Obama picked up from Bill Clinton and moved on, and if Hillary wins, we’ll move forward with her,” said Coelho.
This is the first of a two-part series on political substance abuse policies.
Trey Dyer
Content Writer,
Trey Dyer is a writer for and an advocate for substance abuse treatment. Trey is passionate about sharing his knowledge and tales about his own family’s struggle with drug addiction to help others overcome the challenges that face substance dependent individuals and their families. Trey has a degree in journalism from American University and has been writing professionally since 2011.

Last updated on: December 6, 2019

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