Attorney General Jeff Sessions' scheme to curb drug use through drug busts is doomed to fail, according to a new study released by Pew Charitable Trusts. The study concludes that doling out harsh penalties to drug offenders does not deter drug use, discourage drug trafficking, or reduce the number of drug-related deaths in America. That means the Trump administration's plan to combat the country's opioid epidemic through a new War on Drugs is flawed by design.
The Pew researchers came to those conclusions after reviewing years of data for all 50 states, looking specifically at stats for drug-related incarceration, arrests and deaths. Their exhaustive study found no evidence to suggest those issues effected each other. That means harsh punishments aren't a deterrent for drug use or drug trafficking.
"There seems to be this assumption that tougher penalties will send a stronger message and deter people from involvement with drugs. This is not borne out by the data," Adam Gelb - Director of Pew's Public Safety Performance Project - told NBC News.
That's bad news for Attorney General Sessions, who recently called on federal prosecutors to slap drug offenders with the harshest punishments available under law. “We are returning to the enforcement of the laws as passed by Congress, plain and simple,” Sessions said last month. “If you are a drug trafficker, we will not look the other way, we will not be willfully blind to your misconduct.”
But that approach turns a blind eye to the reality of America's complicated drug problem. Pew found that Louisiana - which has the highest incarceration rate of any U.S. state - has average rates of drug use, overdoses and arrests. At the other end of the spectrum, Massachusetts has the lowest incarceration rate and ranks near the bottom of Pew's list for drug use and arrests, yet it's near the top of the rankings in terms of overdoses. Meanwhile, West Virginia - which has the highest overdose rate in the country - ranked 21st for incarcerations.
In other words, harsh penalties haven't curbed drug use in Louisiana. Massachusetts' lenient approach to punishing drug offenders hasn't caused a spike in drug use or drug-related crimes. And you can't pin West Virginia's overdose crisis on lax drug laws.
The Pew study also vindicates former Attorney General Eric Holder, who criticized Sessions' backward approach to drug policy.
“The policy announced today is not tough on crime. It is dumb on crime,” Holder said last month in response to Sessions' call for more drug busts. “It is an ideologically motivated, cookie-cutter approach that has only been proven to generate unfairly long sentences that are often applied indiscriminately and do little to achieve long-term public safety.”
But Gelb hopes that lawmakers like Sessions and other members of the Trump administration will look beyond the sore feelings from being proven wrong and rethink their tactics for combating opioid addiction.
"This is fresh data that should inform the important conversation happening in Washington and around the country about what the most effective strategies are for combatting the rise in opioid addiction and other substance abuse," Gelb said.