For too long, we saw drugs as an invasion to be repelled rather than as a public health crisis to be answered. We treated drug addiction as a crime, not as a health issue. We incarcerated too many drug users and attacked the supply side of the problem, largely ignoring the demand.
But now, at the very moment we’ve reached a broad, bipartisan consensus and begun to reform our overly punitive policies at the state and federal level, President Trump is poised to turn back the clock. It is difficult to overstate what a major historical misstep this would be, and how many lives could get chewed up and spit out by the new throwback approach.
Late last month, Trump had what the White House called a “very friendly” talk with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, in which Trump invited his Filipino counterpart to the White House.
Duterte has incited civilians to engage in the extrajudicial killing of more than 4,000 drug abusers; last year, he compared himself positively to Adolf Hitler, saying he would be “happy to slaughter” 3 million drug addicts, just as Hitler killed millions of Jews.
In his phone call with Duterte, Trump reportedly praised his Filipino counterpart as the “right way” to attack drug misuse. That is an astonishing endorsement.
No one is suggesting that Trump intends to import Duterte’s brutal, morally repugnant approach to drugs to America’s domestic struggle with narcotics. But we do know that in significant ways, Trump is bringing a dangerously retrograde approach to the issue.
The warning signs were evident the day Donald Trump descended an escalator and announced his presidential bid in 2015. It was then that Trump stoked the fear and resentment toward immigrants residing and working in the United States and first made the call for a wall along the Mexican border that has become a theme of his presidency.
“When Mexico sends its people,” said Trump, “they’re not sending their best…They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime….And it’s got to stop and it’s got to stop fast.”
Whether he knew it at the time or not, Trump’s call for a border wall to keep drugs and immigrants out of the country came straight out of the same political playbook that President Richard Nixon used when he declared the first war on drugs more than four decades ago.
As Nixon’s advisor John Ehrlichman admitted in a 1994 interview, the true motivation for Nixon’s war on drugs was to channel white middle-class fear and distrust of blacks and war protesters toward a hatred of the drugs these groups were perceived to be using. By launching a war on drugs, Nixon was able to declare war on entire communities that he despised.
Then, on the 2016 campaign trail, another element entered. Trump must have seen an opportunity to tie the fear and resentment of immigrants felt by voters in places devastated by the opioid epidemic.
And so, appealing directly to predominately rural and suburban white voters in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, Trump and his campaign viciously exploited sentiments that immigrants have stolen jobs from these communities, constructing a completely false narrative that Latinos and other immigrants are responsible for the hardship that drug addiction, unemployment and other social problems have wrought on these communities.
The President built his political base by converging people’s fears about the opioid crisis with resentment toward immigrant groups. In much the same way that Nixon used drugs as a catalyst for striking at his enemies, Trump is now doing the same.
Now, as President, Trump has leaned hard on his campaign promise to build a wall and “stop the drugs from pouring in.” As he told a room full of police chiefs in February, “we’re going to be ruthless in that fight. We have no choice.”
To wage this fight, Trump has filled top positions in his cabinet with hardliners on drug issues.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is perhaps the hardest of the hardliners. A former prosecutor from Alabama who has long believed that the way to reduce demand for illicit drugs is by sending more people to prison and drilling “just say no” into young people’s brains, Sessions was one of the biggest opponents in Congress to bipartisan drug sentencing reform.
Since his Senate confirmation, Sessions has signaled a reversal of Obama-era policies at the Department of Justice that encouraged federal prosecutors to use discretion in seeking mandatory minimum sentences and has promised a “new intensity” to drug enforcement.
A new intensity that will likely mean more aggressive efforts by federal prosecutors to throw the book at drug offenders, carrying out Sessions’ order to “use every tool we have” to crack down. Communities long scarred by decades of drug war policing will see more disruption, and more families will be torn apart. Prisons already overcrowded with drug offenders will become more packed with people who belong in treatment and diversion programs instead. Taxpayers will be on the hook to pay for Sessions’ ruinous intentions.
Another way this fight is manifesting itself: an aggressive move to deport people with any history of drug arrests whatsoever, no matter the drug and no matter the crime.
John Kelly, head of the Trump administration’s agency charged with immigration enforcement, the Department of Homeland Security, has also vowed to make marijuana a major part of its enforcement efforts against immigrants.
U.S. drug prohibition laws therefore make tens of thousands of noncitizens eligible for deportation every year, even when the drug charges that triggered deportation are dismissed by a court. In this way, the machinery of this country’s entrenched drug war could be a major weapon in Trump’s politically motivated war against immigrants.
It’s not as though Trump ignores the need for treatment entirely. He has made sweeping promises that under his leadership he will “fight to increase access to life-saving treatment to battle the addiction to drugs,” with a special focus on the exploding opioid addiction that’s wreaking havoc in so many communities.
In March, he invited people who struggled with opioid addiction to the White House and launched a task force, being led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, to recommend ways the federal government should respond to the opioid crisis.
“We want to help those who have become so badly addicted,” said Trump.
The President doesn’t need a commission to study the opioid crisis when there is a mountain of evidence that shows what works. Communities struggling under the weight of the opioid crisis need more funding for treatment, housing, harm reduction and other supports essential to keeping people alive and on the road to recovery.
New York City is among many urban communities that have been severely affected for a long time. It would require real leadership from Trump to push for the treatment funding and policy changes needed to deliver real results. Instead, the country waits for a panel’s recommendations, and undoubtedly more people will tragically and needlessly die waiting.
The perfect early test of whether the President’s rhetoric on treatment was hollow or substantive was in health care reform. Trump failed.
His push to replace parts of Obamacare with the American Health Care Act would eliminate health care for millions of people acutely vulnerable to opioid dependence. This legislation would hit states that have some of the highest opioid overdose rates in the country, like Kentucky and West Virginia, especially hard.
Nearly 3 million people got treatment coverage from an expansion of the federal health insurance program known as Medicaid that they didn’t have before Obamacare became law in 2010.
The Trump administration recklessly signed off on House Speaker Paul Ryan’s American Health Care Act, which passed the House on Thursday, knowing that it could jeopardize the ability of millions of people struggling with substance use disorder to keep health insurance that will cover the cost of accessing treatment and mental health care.
The dramatic failure of lock ’em up drug policies is clear to all who have studied the problem — or, really, just about anyone who’s lived in America these last 40 years.
Two generations of intensifying war on illegal drug markets made little difference in the price or availability of illicit drugs. The toughest drug sentences have not made a dent in drug demand.
Instead, an outraged public has turned against the war on drugs. By 2014, two out of three Americans supported ending prosecution for drug possession, and today 60% of Americans support legalizing marijuana.
These numbers should be a warning to Trump that pursuing a revival in the war on drugs would be a serious mistake both politically and fiscally.
Trump also risks alienating his own party if he pushes too hard. A strong bipartisan voting bloc in Congress has consistently supported letting states set their own marijuana policies, and just this week, Congress denied Sessions the federal money to prosecute medical marijuana patients and dispensaries in states where medicinal trade is legal.
Congressional leaders came close last year to reforming some of the harshest mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenses, and have indicated plans to try again soon. This is something that both Trump voters and law enforcement appear to agree on.
Trump voters expressed strong support for criminal justice reform in a recent poll, and nearly 200 law enforcement leaders across the country recently called on the White House to continue pushing for drug sentencing reform.
Incarcerating drug offenders isn’t only bad public policy; it’s very expensive for taxpayers.
All of that is why the Obama administration took serious strides to move the country away from some of the most draconian aspects of the drug war, directing federal prosecutions to seek mandatory sentences for drug offenders more sparingly, and taking steps to recognize drug addiction as a health issue.
Ignoring all this wisdom, threatening all this progress, Trump seems to believe, deep in his gut, that the key to winning the war on drugs is a border wall and a law-enforcement crackdown.
Authorities haven’t been successful at keeping drugs out of maximum security prisons, let alone the third-largest landmass in the world. No border wall will impede the illicit drug trade. And no escalated federal enforcement effort will reduce the demand for powerful narcotics.
Smith is deputy director of national affairs with the Drug Policy Alliance in Washington.