Editorial: Trump wants a new war on drugs

President Trump speaks March 19 in Manchester, N.H., about his plan to combat opioid drug addiction.
President Trump speaks March 19 in Manchester, N.H., about his plan to combat opioid drug addiction.
(Elise Amendola / Associated Press)

President Trump’s opioid response plan might have multiple prongs, but when he unveiled it Monday, he clearly was most interested in the prong that gets “very tough” on drug dealers. We know this because he said so approximately 5,000 times during a speech announcing the new plan in New Hampshire, a state chosen as the backdrop because it is one of those hardest hit by opioid addiction and overdose deaths.

A few examples: “If we don’t get tough on the drug dealers, we are wasting our time.” “Toughness is the thing they most fear.” “We have got to get tough. This isn’t about nice anymore.” What “tough” means to Trump, it turns out, is not attacking addiction with treatment. It means throwing more low-level drug dealers in jail, building a wall along the southern border and cutting funding for sanctuary cities in California that he (wrongly) says protect drug dealers. Also, it means executing drug dealers, because that works so well in other countries. (Not.)

Trump’s get-tough approach is little more than a reboot of the failed ‘War on Drugs’ from the 1980s.

Sorry to be glib, but we have a hard time taking Trump seriously when his long-awaited response to the deadly opioid crisis that killed about 64,000 Americans in 2016 and probably even more in 2017 relies on immigrant scapegoating, barbaric penalties and magical thinking. It’s not even original. Trump’s get-tough approach is little more than a reboot of the failed “War on Drugs” from the 1980s, in which the federal government spent enormous sums trying — and failing — to stop the crack cocaine crisis by throwing people in prison, a disproportionate amount of whom were African American and Latino.

Even more worrisome than the recycled drug war posturing (Trump is also touting a Just Say No-style advertising campaign to tell kids how bad drugs are) was his praise for countries with zero-tolerance drug policies. He didn’t say which countries, but clearly he was referring to the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug crackdown has resulted in the extrajudicial killing of thousands of people (children included) for petty crimes or drug use, according to Human Rights Watch.


Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the president is, once again, embracing policy notions from the 20th century. But before Monday, there was reason to believe that he viewed opioid addiction properly as a public health crisis, not a reason to launch War on Drugs II. His first speech on the topic in October, while vague, promised action on this “public health emergency.” A few days later the commission he convened to study the problem and come up with evidence-based solutions released a 131-page report with 56 recommendations, none of which suggested killing people. The commission did call for enhanced law enforcement and stiffer penalties, but as part of a comprehensive strategy that included such sensible actions as tracking opioid prescriptions, improving drug take-back efforts (unused prescription opioids often get filched and sold on the black market) and providing better access to quality substance abuse treatment.

There was some good stuff in Trump’s announcement, such as holding pharmaceutical companies responsible for their role in pushing out opioids, making legal drugs used in addiction treatment cheaper, developing non-addictive painkillers, making sure that first responders and schools have access to the overdose-prevention drug Naloxone, and working to reduce overprescription of opioids. But even if those prongs hadn’t been overshadowed by all the talk of being tough and executing kingpins, they still wouldn’t be enough. Not when Trump’s own budget proposal would gut Medicaid, which is a crucial source of substance abuse treatment in states like New Hampshire. And not when there is so much more that could be done to keep addicts alive until they get treatment.

If there’s just one lesson to be learned from the country’s last attempt to grapple with a drug crisis, it is that we can’t arrest our way out of drug addiction. Or kill our way out of it. Just say no to Trump’s opioid plan.

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