Governors Continue to Use Emergency Powers to Address the Drug Overdose Epidemic

Governors continue to take executive action and use emergency powers to respond to the nation’s drug overdose epidemic. Recently, Governors in at least two states have issued emergency orders addressing fentanyl and illicit drug use.

In Oregon, Governor Tina Kotek declared a State of Emergency due to fentanyl use on January 30, 2024. The order targets fentanyl use in the city of Portland, with coordinated fentanyl emergencies also declared by the chair of Multnomah County and the Mayor of Portland. The tri-government emergency directs each level of government to commit available resources to the unified response and stands up a command center where state, county and city employees will convene to coordinate strategies and response efforts. The Governor’s order also calls on coordination from state agencies, including emergency management, human services, health, licensing boards, state police, administrative services and environmental quality agencies. The order will expire in 90 days once a comprehensive plan and strategy has been delivered and implementation begins.

In New Mexico, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham declared a Public Health Emergency on September 8, 2023 due to drug abuse. The order calls for coordination from the state departments of public health, environment, homeland security and emergency management, and public safety, and allocates funding to such agencies to expend in compliance with the order. It also encourages localities to request an emergency proclamation and implementation of temporary additional restrictions to address the public health emergency. The order has subsequently been renewed six times, with the most recent extension issued on February 23, 2024.

In addition to drug overdose emergencies being declared at the state level, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services continues to renew a national Public Health Emergency in response to the opioid crisis. The initial emergency was declared October 26, 2017, and has been continuously renewed since, with the most recent renewal issued December 21, 2023.

This is not the first time Governors have used emergency powers to address the opioid and drug overdose crisis. Between 2014 and 2018, emergency and disaster orders were issued in at least eight states targeting the opioid epidemic. These states included Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia. Depending on the state, these declarations were issued via executive order by the Governor or through an order from the state’s health official.

Emergency powers provide Governors with new avenues to enhance capabilities, coordination and collaboration across state and local agencies and may allow Governors to modify their state’s legal framework temporarily to respond to an emergency more quickly. Once an emergency declaration has been issued, a state government may also have authority to take certain actions that are available only for the duration of the emergency. These declarations and their accompanying powers give states flexibility to respond to exigent circumstances, including reallocating state funds, mandating data sharing and strengthening collaboration among public health, law enforcement and other agencies.

A primary goal of opioid and drug emergency declarations is to reduce the number of overdoses and overdose fatalities. Declarations may allow the Governor to create a sustainable, systematic effort that strengthens coordination and collaboration to overcome certain statutory, legislative or regulatory barriers. Emergency declarations generally acknowledge the existence of an emergency, outline immediate next steps to respond to the crisis and detail several strategies to implement or pursue. States may contemplate these identified strategies, determine metrics for assessing outcomes and define what success means to the state for an impactful, sustained response.

The use of emergency powers is just one tool Governors can use to address the drug overdose crisis. Additional executive actions have been taken by Governors through executive and administrative action, which may include establishing drug overdose task forces, improving data collection and bolstering statewide prevention and interdiction efforts. For more information on NGA’s work with Governors on these issues, please visit NGA’s webpage on Substance Use Disorder and Addiction.

This commentary was written by Lauren Dedon. For more information, please contact