POLITICS
02/28/2018 07:05 pm ET Updated Feb 28, 2018

Trump Makes The Case Against Drug Prohibition — In His Own Way

But if he actually believes this, it certainly isn’t guiding his administration’s drug policy.
President Donald Trump made a striking admission about America’s drug policy on Wednesday.
MANDEL NGAN via Getty Images
President Donald Trump made a striking admission about America’s drug policy on Wednesday.

In an apparently off-the-cuff remark Wednesday, President Donald Trump seemed to admit that banning drugs actually complicates enforcement efforts by creating a black market that’s even harder for authorities to control.

The candid statement came as Trump discussed gun policy proposals during a roundtable session with lawmakers at the White House. The president noted that there are always people willing to violate firearms restrictions. Then he drew an unprompted parallel to drug policy.

“You have that problem with drugs,” Trump said. “You make the drugs illegal and they come ― you’ve never had a problem, we’re fighting it hard, but you’ve never had a problem like this.”

Trump didn’t specify what “problem” he was referring to, but his administration has struggled with an effective response to the raging opioid crisis that now claims tens of thousands of American lives each year. So far, most of the policies he’s put forth have centered on law enforcement, including increasing sentences for drug dealers and users, and enhancing interdiction operations. Trump has also reportedly spoken in private about implementing the death penalty for drug traffickers.

Many drug policy experts say these efforts alone can’t combat the problem of drug abuse and addiction. As Trump noted on Wednesday, simply making things illegal ― or more illegal ― does little to address the demand for those things. Resources could be better allocated on treatment and prevention initiatives, experts say.

There’s a specific challenge in the opioid epidemic that underscores Trump’s point. Banning certain synthetic opioid analogs has led to the emergence of newer, more potent and therefore more lethal substances ― a predictable response known as the iron law of prohibition.

It’s probably not worth probing Trump’s comments any further, but here goes. If people, including the president, have reservations about the effectiveness of drug prohibition, should we be applying a similar skepticism to gun laws? Perhaps, but what’s really being discussed is a balance between freedom and control of dangerous things.

Among the wide variety of possible approaches to legalizing drugs, many proposals also call for the creation of a robust regulatory regime. In other words, it wouldn’t just be a free-for-all on many now-banned drugs. People might be able to purchase them at the pharmacy, but the quality of those substances would be rigorously checked. People with substance abuse problems might also be offered resources to get into treatment or, at least, safe spaces to use.

As for gun policy, the conversation doesn’t typically revolve around outright prohibition (despite the fears raised by some pro-gun advocates). If it did, it might be fair to argue that any such laws would not eliminate all gun violence and would surely lead to a black market for dangerous weapons that would be difficult for authorities to control. 

But it’s also fair to argue that the sort of nuanced regulation that reformers say would reduce the risks of drugs might help decrease gun violence as well.

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