Trump’s Bluster on the Opioid Epidemic

Trump’s Bluster on the Opioid Epidemic


Sally Deng

President Trump has declared that his administration is getting serious about the opioid epidemic several times since taking office. But he has repeatedly failed to offer a substantive plan — and he has floated at least a few truly absurd ideas. He did it again this week.

Mr. Trump gave a rambling speech on opioids on Monday in which he offered few details about how he would increase access to substance abuse treatment and prevention to help the millions of Americans suffering from this disease. Some 64,000 people in the United States died of drug overdoses in 2016, including 481 in New Hampshire, one of the hardest hit states in the country, where Mr. Trump gave his speech.

The president went on at length about his preposterous proposal to fight the scourge of drugs by executing drug dealers — an idea that many experts say would not stand up in court and would do little to end this epidemic. He also reprised his cockamamie idea to build a wall along the nation’s southern border, arguing that it would “keep the damn drugs out,” and accused so-called sanctuary cities of releasing “illegal immigrants and drug dealers, traffickers and gang members back into our communities.”

It was Mr. Trump playing his greatest “law and order” hits — as usual, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.

Mr. Trump seems so enamored with autocrats and strongmen that he wants the United States to imitate governments like China and the Philippines by executing drug dealers, claiming such countries “don’t have a drug problem” because of their brutality. This is patently absurd. While it is hard to analyze the experience of many of these countries because they do not collect and publish reliable data about substance use, experts say it is clear that they have not eliminated drug abuse or the crime that often accompanies it. More broadly speaking, many scholars have concluded that there is no good evidence that capital punishment deters crime.

But we do have convincing evidence that ratcheting up the war on drugs, as Mr. Trump and his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, want to do, would not work. Since the early 1980s, the federal government and states have imposed increasingly harsh criminal penalties on drug dealers and users. Not only did they fail to stem drug use or the availability of illicit substances, but they may have contributed to their spread by taking resources away from treatment and prevention efforts. It is no wonder, then, that the per-gram retail price of heroin fell by about 85 percent between 1981 and 2012, according to a report published in 2016 by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

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