On Monday, the White House released the outline of Trump’s plans to tackle the opioid overdose problem and make America a “drug-free society.”
If there is anything we should have learned in the 47 years since President Nixon first declared a “War on Drugs,” it’s that making America a “drug-free society” is a completely impractical goal.
The United States has spent over $1 trillion in waging the drug war and arrested and imprisoned millions of Americans in pursuit of making America a drug-free society. We have little good to show for these efforts and tremendous evidence of harms.
From the disparate impacts the War on Drugs has had on poor and minority Americans, to the fact that cartels, terrorist groups and street gangs have been among the biggest beneficiaries of drug prohibition, there is no way anyone can look at our nation’s drug policies as effective, humane or sensible.
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Not only are we not a drug-free society, but we are facing an opioid overdose crisis in large part because of our failed drug war in the first place. It should not be lost on anyone that more and more people have died due to opioid overdoses following federal and state officials crackdowns on opioid prescriptions, crackdowns ostensibly in the name of saving lives.
According to groups like the Drug Policy Alliance the Global Commission on Drug Policy, crackdowns on prescription opioids have pushed many people to the black market. The predictable and tragic result has been a sharp increase in deaths involving heroin and fentanyl, often in combination.
The percentage of overdose deaths involving heroin tripled from 8 percent in 2010 to 25 percent in 2015, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, while deaths involving natural and semisynthetic opioid analgesics, like oxycodone and hydrocodone, decreased.
We should be clear: people are dying in greater numbers because they are being forced to the black market, which in turn largely only exists because of drug prohibition.
Against this backdrop, Trump has offered a variety of ideas for combatting the opioid overdose problem, most of which will only take us in the wrong direction.
Ramping up crackdowns on prescription opioids, asking the Justice Department to seek the death penalty for drug traffickers and pursuing stiffer sentences for drug traffickers might sound appealing, but they’re merely a perpetuation (or exaggeration) of the same failed, prohibitionist approach that got us where we are today.
Some of his more sound ideas include ensuring first responders are supplied with naloxone, a drug used to reverse overdoses, expanding access to evidence-based treatment like Medication-Assisted Treatment and leveraging “opportunities in the criminal justice system to identify and treat offenders struggling with addiction.”
These latter ideas are far more likely to yield desirable outcomes than pushing even more people to the black market, imprisoning more people or getting caught up in a useless legal battle over whether executing drug traffickers is constitutionally sound.
Given the growing body of research that access to medical marijuana reduces opioid use, we encourage Trump to call on Congress to deschedule it and allow states to legalize it without fear of federal meddling.
Until politicians get the courage, or sense, to end the failed drug war, we urge a focus on harm reduction, not doubling down on prohibition.
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