President Donald Trump’s opioid response plan might have multiple prongs, but when he unveiled it Monday, he clearly was most interested in the prong that gets “very tough” on drug dealers. We know this because he said so approximately 5,000 times during a speech announcing the new plan in New Hampshire, a state chosen as the backdrop because it is one of those hardest hit by opioid addiction and overdose deaths.
A few examples: “If we don’t get tough on the drug dealers, we are wasting our time.” “Toughness is the thing they most fear.” “We have got to get tough. This isn’t about nice anymore.” What “tough” means to Trump, it turns out, is not attacking addiction with treatment. It means throwing more low-level drug dealers in jail, building a wall along the southern border and cutting funding for sanctuary cities in California that he (wrongly) says protect drug dealers. Also, it means executing drug dealers, because that works so well in other countries. (Not.)
Sorry to be glib, but we have a hard time taking Trump seriously when his long-awaited response to the deadly opioid crisis that killed about 64,000 Americans in 2016 and probably even more in 2017 relies on immigrant scapegoating, barbaric penalties and magical thinking. It’s not even original. Trump’s get-tough approach is little more than a reboot of the failed “War on Drugs” from the 1980s, in which the federal government spent enormous sums trying — and failing — to stop the crack-cocaine crisis by throwing people in prison, a disproportionate amount of whom were African-American and Latino.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the president is, once again, embracing policy notions from the 20th century. But before Monday, there was reason to believe that he viewed opioid addiction properly as a public-health crisis, not a reason to launch War on Drugs II. His first speech on the topic in October, while vague, promised action on this “public-health emergency.” A few days later the commission he convened to study the problem and come up with evidence-based solutions released a 131-page report with 56 recommendations, none of which suggested killing people. The commission did call for enhanced law enforcement and stiffer penalties, but as part of a comprehensive strategy that included such sensible actions as tracking opioid prescriptions, improving drug take-back efforts and providing better access to quality substance-abuse treatment.
There was some good stuff in Trump’s announcement, such as holding pharmaceutical companies responsible for their role in pushing out opioids, making legal drugs used in addiction treatment cheaper, developing nonaddictive painkillers, making sure that first responders and schools have access to the overdose-prevention drug naloxone, and working to reduce overprescription of opioids. But even if those prongs hadn’t been overshadowed by all the talk of being tough and executing kingpins, they still wouldn’t be enough.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE LOS ANGELES TIMES