Jessica Jackson Sloan, National Director and Co-founder of #cut50
Despite repeated promises to address the opioid crisis, President Trump is ramping up the war on drugs rather than helping those who are struggling with addiction. While Kellyanne Conway has said the opioid crisis is “a nonpartisan problem searching for bipartisan solutions,” Trump’s recent announcement — to pursue the death penalty for drug dealers and lower thresholds for mandatory minimums — is one more distraction from policies that could save lives and slow the epidemic.
More than 2.5 million Americans are currently addicted to opioids, less than 10 percent get treatment, and a whopping 42,000 people died of overdoses in 2016.
The overwhelming majority of public health and drug policy experts agree that the single most important thing our president could do to stop the death toll is to make evidence-based treatment as widely available and accessible as possible.
But instead, Trump is doubling down on failed policies of the past. Billions of dollars have been poured into enforcing laws that criminalize drug use, production, and distribution over the last 40 years. These policies haven’t prevented drug abuse or stopped the flow of drugs into our communities. Since 1981, the price of heroin has actually dropped 85 percent while its potency, and hence the chance of a fatal overdose, has increased.
The target of Trump’s call to crack down on kingpins and high-level traffickers for more enforcement and stiffer penalties for may sound appealing in theory.
But in practice, mandatory minimums are applied mainly to low-level users and small-time dealers, not high-level suppliers. The bipartisan Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections found that drug offenders make up 49% of the federal prison population, and kingpins make up only 12%. U.S. Sentencing Commission data also reveals that people struggling with addiction are sent to prison — for years, decades, sometimes life even — way more frequently than those supplying them with drugs. Even then, people often don’t get the treatment they need.
The war on drugs is one of the biggest reason why the US has 2.2 million people behind bars, more than any other country. The vast majority of people caught in the U.S. criminal justice system today have problems with substance abuse. The recidivism rate for them is almost 80 percent. And the reason is simple: people need treatment, and sending them to prison, where there are not enough fully resourced programs for drug dependence or addiction is more likely to makes things worse than better.
When it comes to America’s opioid crisis, we know what will save lives — urgently expanding access to treatment. But instead, this administration has proposed slashing funding to substance abuse programs including Medicaid. It has yet to funnel real resources into combating the epidemic, instead prioritizing $1.5 trillion in tax cuts.
All over this country, families are hurting. Yet, only a small proportion of those addicted to opioids can access help. An even smaller fraction get evidence-based treatment that’s proven to stop drug use over the long-term.
People want to see their loved ones get help, so if this administration truly seeks bipartisan solutions to the opioid crisis, it would prioritize treatment not incarceration. It’s time for this administration to put its money where its mouth is. Doing so could save tens of thousands of lives this year alone.