You can't teach old dogs or Attorney General Jeff Sessions new tricks. Earlier today, Sessions revealed the Trump administration's plan to combat the opioid epidemic with a revamped version of the failed War on Drugs. And the "new" three-pronged plan seems similarly doomed to fail since it attacks the symptoms of the crisis without doing anything to cure the disease.
“Today, we are facing the deadliest drug crisis in American history,” Attorney General Sessions said at a press conference held at the Department of Justice. “Based on preliminary data, at least 64,000 Americans lost their lives to drug overdoses last year. That would be the highest drug overdose death toll and the fastest increase in that death toll in American history. For Americans under the age of 50, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death."
He added that "this crisis is driven primarily by opioids — prescription pain medications, heroin and synthetic drugs like fentanyl.”
But instead of trying to curb demand for opioids, Sessions is sicking the DEA on the suppliers with a three-pronged approach that involves offering over $12 million in grants to help law enforcers crack down on illegal manufacturers and distributors of opioids; creating a new DEA Field Division in Louisville, Kentucky to help DEA agents coordinate efforts to combat drug trafficking in the Appalachian mountain region; and ordering US Attorneys to designate an opioid Coordinator to help local law enforcers to prosecute cases in every district of the country.
Trump's Flawed Approach
The problem with those measures is that they empower the DEA to go after more drug traffickers and street dealers, but they don't do anything to address the people who keep those criminals in business: the consumers. And to do that, you need to attack the root of opioid addiction, which typically starts in the household medicine cabinet, not on the street.
Addiction commonly begins when people become dependent on opioids that have been legally prescribed to treat legitimate conditions like chronic pain. Those pills become less effective over time, so patients require higher doses to get the same effect. And if their prescriptions become too expensive, or their doctors cut them off, many opioid-dependent patients turn to heroin as a cheaper and accessible substitute.
So throwing people in jail to combat opioid addiction is like trying to cure hunger by locking up food.
That's why the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) — a nonprofit organization of former law enforcers committed to improving drug policy — is calling on the Trump administration to focus on treatment and harm reduction instead of rebooting the War on Drugs.
"The DEA's 'new' strategy is just more of what pushed us into the opioid crisis in the first place," said LEAP's Executive Director Neill Franklin, a retired police major. "Americans won't be surprised when overdoses continue to take our loved ones. Drug use is a public health problem. Listen to the doctors and counselors - they're telling us we need to focus on treatment and harm reduction services."
And the harm-reduction method that America needs most is a safer alternative to the prescription pills that are the root cause of the epidemic.
Medical Marijuana Could Be That Alternative
The opioid epidemic is unlikely to slow down so long as addictive medications like percocet and oxycodone remain the only federally approved prescriptions for pain management.
However, one alternative that the feds could consider is medical marijuana. Recent studies have shown again and again that marijuana can help addicts wean themselves off opioids. Moreover, marijuana's painkilling properties could provide an alternative to the pills that cause addiction.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration won't consider medical marijuana as an option so long as Attorney General Sessions and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie are in charge of combating the opioid epidemic. Christie, who also chairs President Trump's opioid commission, insists that marijuana leads to opioid addiction, even though that notion has been debunked repeatedly by science. But Christie refuses to acknowledge that.
Meanwhile, Sessions scoffs at the medicinal benefits of marijuana, which he thinks is "only slightly less awful" than heroin.
"I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana – so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful," Sessions said last March.
So the death toll for the opioid epidemic will likely continue to climb until we figure out a way to cure the Trump administration's denial.