President Donald Trump wants to execute drug dealers, build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and launch a new “just say no”-style advertising campaign to scare kids away from drugs in order to stem the opioid epidemic.
The president characterized his drug-enforcement proposals during an address in New Hampshire on Monday as key parts of his administration’s plan to “liberate our country” from an opioid overdose crisis that claimed 50,000 lives in 2016.
But experts say Trump’s ideas are little more than ineffective retreads of failed drug policies that will do little to alleviate the suffering.
Trump has reportedly spent weeks flirting with the idea of imposing capital punishment for certain drug crimes. He made the proposal official on Monday, saying the death penalty must be part of a broader effort to “get tough on the drug dealers.”
It’s not entirely clear what changes to sentencing laws the administration envisions, or whether it will follow through with any proposals. But laws at the state and federal levels are already tough on drug dealers, so much so that even small-time pushers can be convicted of murder.
“These sorts of laws already exist, so people shouldn’t be so outraged ― they should be outraged that they already exist and are on the books and haven’t been reformed,” said Leo Beletsky, an associate professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University.
Many of these statutes, which were popular in the 1980s, allow prosecutors to seek harsh penalties for what’s known as drug-induced homicide ― incidents in which someone can be identified as the source of drugs that led to an overdose death.
Research generally shows that increasing the severity of punishment doesn’t lead to reductions in drug use or supply, though increasing the certainty of punishment may. This is in part because locking up individual drug dealers simply results in a “replacement effect,” in which newcomers fill the void left by someone who’s sent to prison. The main effect of imprisoning dealers “is merely to open the market for another seller,” one report highlighted.
Beefing up penalties may also lead to significant collateral consequences. Just because someone provides drugs to another person doesn’t mean they’re a dealer, or at least the kind many people would view as deserving of the full force of the law. As HuffPost’s Jason Cherkis reported in his story on heroin addiction in Kentucky, drug users will often pool resources in order to buy in bulk. Some users may end up selling to others to subsidize their own habits, but they’re far from the kingpins responsible for the drug trade.
“It’s going to ensnare other users, it’s going to be applied disproportionately to people of color and it’s going to mean that we’re spending millions of dollars keeping people behind bars while jurisdictions don’t have money to pay for naloxone, which actually can save people,” said Beletsky.
Naloxone, also known as Narcan, is an opioid overdose-reversal drug that can counteract the effects of respiratory depression that often lead to death during an opioid overdose. In his remarks Monday, Trump hailed Narcan as an important tool to combat the opioid epidemic.
But in order to a have a chance at successfully intervening in an overdose, a bystander must either have access to naloxone or be willing to call a first responder to administer it. Other opioid users are typically the closest to the scene of an overdose. If they fear that they could be charged with murder or be eligible for the death penalty, they’d be far less likely to report, said Beletsky.
Research conducted by Beletsky’s group, Health In Justice, shows that drug-induced homicide laws have been used with increasing frequency in recent years, and in a racially disproportionate manner.
“About half of them target people of color, and a combination of a person of color who’s a dealer and a white victim,” said Beletksy. “That’s the narrative that prosecutors look for when they choose to apply these provisions.”
Trump appeared to drive home that idea on Monday, singling out Mexico and undocumented immigrants as the primary source of illicit opioids into the U.S. To address the problem, the U.S. must “build the wall to keep the damn drugs out,” he said.
The president’s logic falls short here, too. Most drugs flow into the U.S. through legal ports of entry, and ramping up enforcement and penalties has generally only encouraged cartels to traffic in increasingly potent substances like fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times stronger than heroin, and similar analogs that are now associated with tens of thousands of overdose deaths each year.
Maia Szalavitz broke down some of the reasons for this shift, known as the “iron law of prohibition,” in an article for Vice in 2016.
Basically, the idea is that because illegal drugs need to be kept hidden, harsher laws will tend to promote the spread of more potent and dangerous drugs, simply because smaller quantities are easier to conceal and smuggle. Alcohol prohibition, for example, favored whisky over beer. The rise of illegally produced fentanyl and its derivatives — overdoses of which increased 79 percent between 2013 and 2014 alone — seems an apt illustration of this principle.
Trump’s plan to launch an aggressive new ad campaign warning kids about the dangers of drug use also has faced plenty of detractors. The president first floated this proposal in October, and he doubled down on Monday, saying he wants to spend “a lot of money on great commercials showing how bad it is.” But the record suggests this would be a poor investment.
The federal government has pushed anti-drug commercials for decades, spending millions of dollars and achieving varying degrees of success, most recently during President George W. Bush’s administration.
Some of the most famous ad campaigns are now best known for their absurd hyperbole. Others were so lame that they appeared destined to fail from the outset. And most of them have. Studies have shown these commercials generally did not have the intended effect of reducing adolescent drug use, though there is some evidence that a shift to less extreme messaging produced better results.
Taken together, critics say Trump’s ideas for stanching the opioid epidemic are little more than relics of the past that favor tough rhetoric over a more effective commitment to treatment and prevention.
“The war on drugs didn’t work in the ’80’s, and it won’t work now by reviving failed deterrence measures like the death penalty for drug dealers,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said in a statement. “We must instead crack down on the over-production and over-prescribing of painkillers, and increase treatment for those suffering from addiction — both of which have bipartisan support in Congress.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version misidentified Durbin’s political party. He’s a Democrat.