It’s the American way.
We’ve seen nearly every president for the past four administrations adopt this tactic, and Donald Trump seems to like it best of all. For Trump, Obama-era policies are targets, even when they have been successful. One example is our new president’s take on America’s opium epidemic.
Trump’s War on Drugs
Trump has declared America’s over-reliance on heroin and other dangerous opioids a national emergency. That’s a fair judgment for him to make, but can you find another example of a national emergency the federal government has originally met with just $57,000 in funds?
That’s about a quarter of what it costs to keep Air Force One aloft for an hour — and Trump takes lots of plane rides to Mar-a-Lago.
In more recent news, Trump has announced he’ll be donating his quarterly salary toward the crisis. While the gesture holds some merit, it doesn’t come close to being what we need. Trump’s quarterly salary amounts to $100,000, while the estimated cost of the epidemic tops $500 billion.
Trump chose his words carefully. Naming the situation a national disaster would have unlocked billions in agency funding, enough to potentially make a difference in the estimated $78.5 billion problem of helping opioid addicts recover. Instead, we got a ruse.
In a reversal of the Obama administration’s policy that sought to decriminalize drug use and treat the condition more like a sickness, Trump has asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to adopt the harshest penalties possible for drug users.
For at least one citizen, it’s the wrong policy. In a recent article on Politico, Elizabeth Brico explains why she’s convinced what Trump is proposing won’t work — and as a former heroin addict, she should know.
How Did We Get Here?
You’d be wrong to think the latest outbreak of opioid addiction sprung up overnight, though media coverage was lacking early in the story’s development. A spike in deaths from heroin and other opioid overdoses became a visible trend in American health care beginning in 2010, and things have only been getting worse since then.
Much of the problem was the result of patients weaning themselves off the powerful and addictive painkiller OxyContin. With no prescription and too little money to afford OxyContin on the street, people who would otherwise have never been exposed to opioids turned to heroin to get their fix.
As heroin sales increased, the influx of more powerful street dope, such as fentanyl-laced heroin, raised the stakes. An unknowing user expecting a hit of “normal” heroin might die from a single hit of the laced drugs being brought in from Mexico.
A Return to Reagan-Era Drug Laws
Like Brico, victims of the modern opioid epidemic do not subscribe to the stereotype many of us have from television and movies. They are not transients or lifelong freeloaders. They’re just regular people who got caught up in something addictive, but Trump wants to treat these people as criminals.
The same rhetoric created many of the Reagan-era laws Barack Obama worked to eliminate during his tenure. Treating drug users as criminals and locking them in jail does nothing to combat the problem of addiction, but it does cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
Why Trump’s Tactics Won’t Work
When the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act was introduced in Congress, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va) said, “We now know it’s an illness.” He was referring to the advances in medicine that have allowed us to see how opioids affect the body and force addicts to seek more drugs or become “dopesick,” a condition that can be life-threatening.
Social programs introduced along with the bill provided addicts with access to clinics where they might get help. Instead of wasting $28,000 per inmate yearly, Obama’s policies instead focused spending on recovery and developing methods to rehabilitate users so they wouldn’t end up back in prison — a fate that befalls nearly 80 percent of those arrested on drug charges.
Fanning the Flames
Sadly, that sensible policy has been replaced by one that targets drug users, instead of the real problem. Drug suppliers continue to market their wares. Regardless of what Trump may say about cartels in Mexico and China, his administration has little to show for the expensive new equipment and efforts being made to stop the incursion of more new product onto American soil.
Instead of helping a population of addicts, this policy motivates further drug use. The criminal stigma American lawmakers have attached to drug use leads to feelings of hopelessness that demoralize and discourage those who might otherwise seek help.
When someone is sick, it is human nature for us to help them get better, but the criminalization of drug users does nothing but give the right-wing war on drugs new targets so they can funnel money to big business for services and equipment that won’t fix the problem.