President Donald Trump speaks during the Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Atlanta on Wednesday. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Trump in Atlanta vows to fight opioid abuse epidemic

President targets border, Democrats, pharmaceutical industry

President Donald Trump doubled down on border security Wednesday and took aim at Democrats and the pharmaceutical industry as he vowed to fight the deadly opioid abuse epidemic.

Trump made the remarks at the Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit in Atlanta, an annual event that attracts thousands of addiction experts, treatment counselors and law-enforcement officers. He pressed his case for expanding the southwest border wall, though critics say most illegal drugs come through America’s ports of entry.

During his address at the downtown Hyatt Regency, Trump invoked his 2015 entrance to the presidential race, when he accused Mexico of sending illegal drugs, crime and rapists to America.

“I made a very strong statement about the border and I was criticized. They said, ‘It’s not that bad.’ Well, let me tell you that statement was peanuts compared to reality,” said Trump, who was introduced at the Atlanta summit by First Lady Melania Trump. “But we are confronting reality and confronting the grave security and humanitarian crisis on our southern border.”

Moments later, the president vented about Democratic opposition to his immigration policies.

“Congress must also act to fix, however, our horrible, obsolete, weak, pathetic immigration laws,” he said. “We could solve the entire problem – I say 45 minutes, but it could go a lot quicker than that, let’s bring it down to 15 minutes - if the Democrats would agree to do certain basic commonsense things with respect to our laws.”

Drug overdoses killed more than 70,000 Americans in 2017. About two-thirds of those deaths involved opioids. Such overdoses killed 1,007 people across Georgia that same year, up 12 percent from the previous year. Americans are now more likely to die from opioid overdoses than car wrecks.

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Georgia and dozens of its cities and counties are among hundreds of government plaintiffs from across the nation now suing the opioid industry in federal court. Among the defendants is Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, and its owners, who agreed this year to pay $270 million as part of a settlement with the state of Oklahoma.

In 2017, the Trump administration declared the opioid abuse epidemic a public health emergency. The following year, the federal government unveiled a campaign to educate Americans about the dangers of opioid abuse, crack down on illegal drug supply chains and help people recover from addiction. The White House says it has secured $6 billion for those efforts.

Trump pointed to how the U.S. Justice Department announced this week its first-ever felony charges against a drug distributor for illegal distribution of opioids. Federal prosecutors have accused Rochester Drug Co-Operative and two of its executives of illegally distributing fentanyl and oxycodone and of conspiracy to defraud the Drug Enforcement Administration.

“We are holding Big Pharma accountable,” he said, eliciting applause. “They have got to do what is right.”

Before the event, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway described Trump’s address as a “progress report” on the administration’s opioid policies. While he didn’t outline any new plans, she said the administration would also support legislation that would stiffen penalties on drug traffickers who distribute fentanyl and other opioids.

Trump’s early-afternoon arrival snarled traffic in the heart of Atlanta as his motorcade traveled from the airport to the hotel. Streets were lined with workers, tourists and others who craned their necks for a glimpse of any VIPs.

A bicycle response team blocks off John Portman Boulevard from marchers on their way to Hardy Ivy Park to protest President Donald Trump while he headlined a summit targeting prescription drug abuse on Wednesday in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

More than 100 demonstrators gathered at Woodruff Park in downtown ahead of the president’s speech, before marching toward the Hyatt Regency. Their banners and posters declared: “Let’s change wall into welcome y’all” and “No! The Trump/Pence Regime Must Go.” Dozens of police, many on bicycles, monitored their movements and blocked some roads.

Democrats on Wednesday accused the president of undermining the fight against the opioid epidemic through his efforts to scrap the Affordable Care Act.

“The bottom line is that Trump is trying to talk out of both sides of his mouth on opioid abuse,” U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, said in a prepared statement.

State Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, echoed Johnson.

“We have an epidemic in this state,” she said. “And what’s the biggest tool that we have for fighting the opioid crisis? It’s Medicaid. Yet we see in Congress and from the White House massive efforts to gut Medicaid and take apart this tool.”

President Donald Trump yells to the crowd who was there to greet him at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta on Wednesday. For Trump's first visit to Georgia in 2019, he  headlined the Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta focusing on prescription drug abuse. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com
Photo: Emily Haney/emily.haney@ajc.com

Trump got backup from the state’s Republican hierarchy, including Gov. Brian Kemp and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who both greeted him at Hartsfield-Jackson as Air Force One touched down. Several members of Georgia’s congressional delegation praised Trump’s initiative.

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson noted the crisis has “touched so many families, including my own.” He added: “Georgia and states across the country, along with our medical community and first responders, now have better tools to fight this epidemic to help more Georgians and Americans.”

Dramatic opera music and Rolling Stones tunes were piped into the hotel ballroom before Trump spoke. As they awaited the president, some in the summit’s audience enthusiastically waved lighted cellphones to the rhythm of Elton John’s recording of “Candle in the Wind.”

Trump was accompanied on the stage by several people, including a local police officer whose son died of a prescription drug overdose.

Attendees’ reactions to Trump’s speech were mixed.

Mike Wade is a community relations specialist at Blacksburg, Va.-based New River Valley Community Services, which helps people recover from addiction. He disagreed with the president’s approach.

“It’s not about border control. It’s about a disease. And to politicize that in any way I think is just completely misguided,” he said. “We need more access to safe and affordable housing for people in recovery. We need more drug courts. We need more alternative sentencing programs to decriminalize the disease of addiction.”

Barbara Holt, an education coordinator with the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine in Lewisburg, W.Va., agreed with the president’s message, including tightening security on the southwest border.

“We are moving in the right direction,” she said. “I loved all the people he brought to the podium to tell their stories and what they do and that he is working on keeping the drugs out and helping families and the extra money for treatment.”

Trump started his morning Wednesday railing against Special Counsel Robert Mueller III’s investigative report, going after Democrats as well as Mexico and endorsing plans for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

“The Mueller Report, despite being written by Angry Democrats and Trump Haters, and with unlimited money behind it ($35,000,000), didn’t lay a glove on me. I DID NOTHING WRONG. If the partisan Dems ever tried to Impeach, I would first head to the U.S. Supreme Court,” he tweeted.

“Not only are there no ‘High Crimes and Misdemeanors,’ there are no Crimes by me at all. All of the Crimes were committed by Crooked Hillary, the Dems, the DNC and Dirty Cops - and we caught them in the act! We waited for Mueller and WON, so now the Dems look to Congress as last hope!”

By midafternoon, roughly two hours after arriving in Atlanta, Trump was aboard Air Force One again.

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