President Donald Trump vowed to tackle the opioid epidemic during his first State of the Union address last night. But his plan to combat illicit drug use will only worsen the opioid epidemic, which claimed the lives of 53,332 Americans in 2016 alone.
“We must get much tougher on drug dealers and pushers if we are going to succeed in stopping this scourge,” Trump said during the State of the Union. “My administration is committed to fighting the drug epidemic and helping get treatment for those in need, for those who have been so terribly hurt. The struggle will be long and it will be difficult ― but, as Americans always do, in the end, we will succeed, we will prevail.”
Getting "tougher on drug dealers and pushers" presumably means putting them behind bars to serve long sentences, which was the same solution proposed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions last year.
“We are returning to the enforcement of the laws as passed by Congress, plain and simple,” Sessions said last May. “If you are a drug trafficker, we will not look the other way, we will not be willfully blind to your misconduct...You drug dealers are going to prison.”
But prisons won't solve the problem. According to a report released last year by Pew Charitable Trusts, tough sentences don't deter people from getting involved in the black market for narcotics — whether that's as dealers, pushers or consumers.
"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 in June.
In fact, sending more people to prison will likely exacerbate the opioid epidemic by providing those dealers with more clients. One in three prisoners around the world have used illegal drugs behind bars, according to a 2017 report from the United Nations' Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Approximately 1 million prisoners say they've used heroin at least once during their incarceration, and roughly 320,000 inmates say they use it regularly, the report found. And many of those users picked up heroin habits after being thrown behind bars.
"People who use drugs often continue to do so while incarcerated, and other prisoners may initiate drug use or injecting while in prison," the report added.
So Trump's plan to lockup drug supplies is basically sentencing streets dealers to a trade show crowded with hungry customers.
Meanwhile, his State of the Union pledge to provide drug treatment is a retread of a campaign promise that has amounted to little more than lip service so far. Trump declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency last fall, but he hasn't funded efforts to tackle drug addiction. In fact, his administration and Republicans in Congress are attempting to gut drug-treatment programs, according to Patrick Kennedy, a member of Trump's opioid commission who recently called that commission a "sham."
Medical Marijuana Could Cure the Opioid Epidemic
Instead of busting drug traffickers, Trump needs to find a safer alternative to oxycodone and other prescription pills that are fueling the opioid epidemic. Street dealers aren't the source of the problem, the family medicine cabinet is. And the pushers are our often own bodies.
For many victims of the opioid epidemic, addiction begins with legal prescriptions for painkillers. Right now, opioids are the top option to treat chronic pain and other serious ailments. The problem with those pills is that their effectiveness wears off over time as patients develop a tolerance for them. That means they need higher and higher doses to get the same level of relief. And those high doses can easily turn a medication regimen into a serious addiction.
After becoming hooked, many addicts turn to heroin as a cheaper and more accessible alternative to those prescriptions pills. So to combat the epidemic, Trump should focus more on cutting out the demand and less on targeting the supply of opioids. To do that, his administration needs to find a safer alternative to those deadly and defective pills.
One promising option is medical marijuana. Numerous studies have shown that cannabis is not only a safer option to treat chronic pain but also an effective treatment for opioid addiction itself. That move would stop many people from turning to the streets for heroin in the first place, and it would hit the dealers by taking away their customers.
But that move is unlikely to happen on Attorney General Jeff Sessions' watch. Trump's top law enforcer believes that marijuana is "only slightly less awful" than heroin. Sessions is also pushing for a crackdown on states that have defied federal marijuana prohibition by legalizing cannabis for recreational and/or medicinal use.
So if Trump is serious about putting street dealers out of business, the first thing he needs to do is fire Jeff Sessions.