A recently released memo by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions it is putting into practice a recent proposal from President Trump to seek the death penalty for federal drug trafficking cases. The memo, dated March 20th, cites the severity of the opioid epidemic which killed more than 64,000 Americans in 2016 alone and calls for United States attorneys to seek capital punishment “in appropriate cases.” The memo by Sessions goes on to say, “I strongly encourage federal prosecutors to use these statutes, when appropriate, to aid in our continuing fight against drug trafficking and the destruction it causes our nation.”
While the memo does make short mention of prescription drug manufacturing and distribution, the subject of the memo seems to mostly focus on the illicit, underground distribution of these drugs by more traditional “criminals” such as gang members and transnational criminal organizations like drug cartels.
This attempt to push the death penalty for drug trafficking seems to have matured from an offhand comment by President Trump during a meeting with his cabinet when he mentioned that one way to help stem the opioid epidemic would to execute any high-level drug traffickers. Only a few days after the comment was made, the Sessions memo was released making the policy official.
While there are some other planks in the White House’s platform for fighting the opioid epidemic, this particular one is the most troubling as it is an extreme version of the same war on drugs rhetoric which has not been working for this county for close to half a century. These “tough on crime” policies bring us closer to authoritarian regimes like that of the Philippines and Rodrigo Duterte than they do to a real solution that is desperately needed as the fatalities from drug overdoses continue to mount across the country.
Trump’s recent proposal to combat the opioid epidemic comes with three main pillars. The first is increasing federal funding to make substance abuse treatment more widely available for anyone that needs it. This has been a major roadblock in the fight against substance abuse for decades, as those who struggle with substance abuse tend to have limited financial resources and many of them do not have private insurance. This limits their options for treatment to those facilities that are funded by the state, federal government or charities such as The Salvation Army. These programs however typically have waiting lists which can range from weeks to months, frustrating those who are in dire straits and need help urgently.
This is the one part of Trump’s proposal that actually makes sense. The other two are throwbacks to the same old ideas which have been thrown around different levels of government for the past 50 years. The first idea is the death penalty for convicted drug traffickers and the second idea is a new and aggressive marketing campaign to dissuade people from beginning to use drugs in the first place.
While the proposal to execute convicted drug traffickers is certainly a more extreme approach to the same idea that the way to solve the drug problem is to lock away all the criminals, the idea of performing a marketing campaign to stop people from using drugs is not new either. Back in the 1980s First Lady Nancy Reagan made a push with her “Just Say No” campaign during the height of the crack epidemic, however that was unsuccessful. Unfortunately, instead of learning from this failure, it seems that the Trump administration is doubling down on this concept.
The Failure of The War on Drugs
The problem with this approach to drug use and drug trafficking is that those who are addicted to mind and mood-altering substances do not have the luxury of thinking logically. Of course, most people who are capable of making a choice between being executed by the state and not would choose the latter. However modern scientific research as well as the statistics on incarceration rates, specifically for drug offenses, clearly shows that drug addicts lack the power of normal thinking when it comes to their drug use. Their brains are actually altered and begin to function as if their drug of choice is critical for their continued survival. This has an impact on not just drug users but drug traffickers because a significant number of drug traffickers sell drugs as a way to support their own drug habit, making it difficult to discern the two.
The main issue with past policies associated with the war on drugs is the fact that drug addiction is not something that can simply be treated by locking someone away for years with the expectation that they will choose to change their life once they are released. Despite what many may want to believe, drug addiction is a disease which requires long-term and specialized treatment in order to contain. This type of desperately needed treatment is not currently being offered to prisoners on a large scale which means that many of the people we are locking away into cells are destined to return to prison as their diseases are still untreated. This is why locking drug addicts up for crimes like simple possession is not the way to confront things like the current opioid epidemic.
This is where the suggestion of capital punishment for drug trafficking gets murky and potentially barbaric. While not all drug traffickers are drug addicts themselves, many of them are and the only reason that they participate in drug trafficking is due to their addiction. Essentially, executing many of these people would come down to putting them to death due to symptoms of a disease that they have. This may be more agreeable to some than others but the simple truth is that executing people for a mental health condition is very old thinking.
The Worsening Opioid Crisis
The increasing attention in the media, coupled with pressure from the public, has forced legislators and law enforcement officials to take action to stem the opioid epidemic in the United States recently. As has been the case for decades in this country, most of those efforts have come in the form of attempts to reduce drug trafficking. Increased security at the US – Mexico border, along with stricter enforcement of drug sales and possession laws have resulted in more seizures of opioids and more arrests of drug dealers, however the opioid crisis has shown no signs of slowing down. Instead, the number of opioid addicts, including heroin addicts, across the country has shown steady increases. Fatal drug overdoses have also increased significantly, with over 64,000 in the US last year alone, which is four times the amount that occurred only 18 years ago.
This seems to be occurring due to a lack of critical thinking on the part of law makers and enforcement officials. As the history of drug trafficking, as well as other drugs, clearly shows the drug cartels are following rather simple economic incentives here. Where there is a demand for drugs, they step in and meet that demand with a supply. Attempting to make a difference at the supply level has not only recently, but in many past examples, proven to be mostly ineffective at reducing demand and in many cases leads to unwanted repercussions such as gang violence. There is simply too much money at stake for the drug cartels to be dissuaded by police and border patrol agents. This is why a shift in our efforts, from focusing on reducing the supply to instead attempting to reduce the demand is the right answer moving forward.
Simply put, if the demand for heroin does not exist then drug trafficking will not exist. Helping those in our country who are in dire straits, struggling with heroin addiction is not impossible. In many cases it is probably significantly cheaper than the route we are currently attempting and most importantly it would be more effective. The problem is that real treatment options for heroin addicts, and drug addicts of any kind for that matter, are not easily and widely available across the country. The prognosis is somewhat better for those who are covered by private medical insurance, but for heroin addicts that are over the age of 26 that means either having a job or a spouse which is covered by medical insurance. Unfortunately, situations like that are the rare exceptions and a vast majority of heroin addicts who are no longer eligible to be covered under their parents’ insurance have either state funded medical insurance or none at all, leaving them with almost no options for effective treatment whatsoever.
Perhaps the saddest part of this entire situation is that the solution is not only quite apparent but would not be particularly difficult to implement. More quality, free or low-cost treatment options for substance abuse would put a significant dent in the overall demand for heroin across the country. This would not only reduce the number of fatal heroin overdoses, but it would shrink the economic incentive for those who are involved with drug trafficking as well, eventually leading to a decrease in the supply of the drug across the country.
Is There a Solution?
The opioid epidemic is something that has not come about because of one simple issue, nor has it popped up overnight. Because of this, the solution to the issue is similarly complex and will not take place immediately. The real solution is going to come from a concerted and long-term effort on the part of multiple institutions like the federal government, state governments, private healthcare providers and most importantly the American public.
If Trump is truly concerned with reducing the number of drug overdoses in the coming years then there are two main points he needs to address:
- Reduce potential for new addicts from prescription drugs – This is not going to occur with “Just say no” or “tough on crime” campaigns. While some new addicts come from recreational use of these drugs, a significant portion come in the form of people who are legally prescribed the medications from doctors. While there are certainly situations where pain killers can be very useful tools at a doctor’s disposal, many in the healthcare industry have recently begun to admit that the prescribing of pain killers during the 90s and 2000s was excessive. Stricter prescribing regulations for opiates would help to reduce the overall number of new opioid addicts in two ways. Not only would it lessen the number of those who are prescribed the medications legitimately, but it would also reduce the amount of opioids on the black market which are often times obtained when a person either does not finish their prescribed amount or obtains the prescription under false pretenses.
- Make treatment more easily available to everyone – While the above may help to reduce the number of new addicts, the fact is that there are millions of Americans who are struggling with addiction already. Prophylactic policies and changes will not cure them of their addiction, the only real possibility for help here is by providing them with quality and effective addiction treatment. Currently there are thousands of addiction treatment centers across the country, however many of them either accept only private insurance, which many addicts to not have, or cost considerable amounts of money, which many addicts cannot afford.