Trump signs legislation aimed at tackling the opioid crisis

U.S. President Donald Trump pledged on Wednesday to put an "extremely big dent" in the scourge of drug addiction in America as he signed legislation intended to help tackle the opioid crisis, the deadliest epidemic of overdoses in the country's history.

Rare bipartisan package includes measures to keep the drugs out of the U.S. and help addicts

More than 72,000 people died in the U.S. last year from drug overdoses. (Graeme Roy/Canadian Press)

U.S. President Donald Trump pledged to put an "extremely big dent" in the scourge of drug addiction in the United States as he signed rare, bipartisan legislation intended to help tackle the opioid crisis, the deadliest epidemic of overdoses in the country's history.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 72,000 people died from drug overdoses in the U.S. last year. The majority — almost 49,000 — were from overdoses involving opioids. 

The legislation will make medical treatment more accessible for opioid abusers, and require the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) to screen overseas packages for fentanyl — a synthetic opioid more powerful than heroin — that is being shipped largely from China.

The new law includes specific measures aimed at keeping the synthetic opioid, fentanyl, out of the U.S. (Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

The screening measure mandates advance electronic data on all international packages, including those delivered by the U.S. Postal Service, and sets deadlines for the screening to be put into place by the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, and USPS.

The previous Obama administration secured a commitment to expand opioid treatment and Congress provided $1 billion US in grants to states to combat the crisis.

Trump has declared the opioid epidemic a national emergency and two major funding bills have passed under his watch.

"My administration has also launched an unprecedented effort to target drug dealers, traffickers and smugglers," Trump said. "We are shutting down online networks, cracking down on international shipments and going after foreign traffickers like never before."

Fentanyl is inexpensive but some 50 times more powerful than heroin, according to Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who was among the lawmakers instrumental in getting the bill passed.   

Canada facing similar challenges

According to Health Canada, at least 3,996 people died of apparent opioid overdoses in Canada last year — nearly 70 per cent of them involving fentanyl.

Last year, the federal government passed a law that gives the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) the power to open international mail under 30 grams to check for drugs.

Overall in 2017, the CBSA seized 290 kilograms of opioids at the border and 14 kilograms of fentanyl.

We are going to end the scourge of drug addiction in America.- U.S. President Donald Trump 

Despite Trump's calls for using the death penalty against major drug dealers, his administration has built on the treatment approach that Obama favoured.

The legislation covers not only opioids but also any kind of substance abuse. It expands Americans' access to treatment and changes the law that prohibited Medicaid from reimbursing residential treatment at certain facilities with more than 16 beds.

Trump says his administration is going after dealers and traffickers in unprecedented ways. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

It includes $60 million US for babies born dependent on these drugs and authorizes a variety of programs, such as drug courts that work to get offenders into treatment instead of behind bars.

"Together we are going to end the scourge of drug addiction in America," Trump said. "We are going to end it, or we are going to at least put an extremely big dent in this terrible problem."

The U.S. Senate passed the measure by a vote of 98-1 in September, after a 353-52 vote in favour in the House. The bill had 252 bipartisan co-sponsors in the House, more than almost any other bill in recent years, according to the website GovTrack Insider.

With files from Reuters and CBC News