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As Overdose Deaths Surge, White House Takes Steps To Build Drug Policy Team

President Biden on Wednesday announced more of the team that will tackle the addiction crisis.
President Biden on Wednesday announced more of the team that will tackle the addiction crisis.

Updated at 6:30 p.m. ET

President Biden named more of the team that will tackle the addiction crisis on Wednesday while promising a series of policy actions in the first 100 days.

The announcement comes as overdose deaths surge to record levels, topping 81,000 fatalities over the past 12 months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Regina LaBelle, a veteran drug policy expert who served in the Obama administration, was named deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).

In a statement, LaBelle said "mounting rates of overdose deaths and untreated addiction are significant challenges" especially at a time when the Biden team faces other major crises.

LaBelle will lead the White House drug policy team until a permanent ONDCP director is named and confirmed by the Senate.

Biden also has yet to name a director of the Food and Drug Administration, but he has named California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to head the Health and Human Services Department.

Becerra, who hasn't been confirmed by the Senate, has been active in the past on opioid issues.

"The president has tabbed the right people," says Reuben Guttman, an expert on drug policy who teaches at Emory Law, responding to the announcement. "But the problem is both ingrained and immense."

Some addiction experts have questioned whether the Biden team has the bandwidth to tackle the addiction crisis while coping with the pandemic and its economic fallout.

In an emailed statement to NPR last week, a White House spokesman said the "country is facing many simultaneous crises and President Biden understands that."

According to Wednesday's announcement, immediate efforts to curb overdose deaths will include a new focus on racial equity in drug policy and expanding access to medications used to treat opioid use disorder.

In its statement, the Biden administration noted two new members of the ONDCP team are themselves in recovery from addiction.

Kassandra Frederique, who heads the Drug Policy Alliance, says she welcomes the White House focus on public health and harm reduction rather than what she described as "failed interdiction efforts."

"Biden picking people with personal experience and public health backgrounds to lead them reflect much of what we have been urging," Frederique says in a statement emailed to NPR.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.