War on Drugs Logic and Overdose Deaths

The status quo is a catastrophe

person holding a box of Narcan nasal spray
Whitney Curtis / The New York Times / Redux

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

Observers disagree about law enforcement’s case against Donald Trump, the former president whose Florida mansion was recently searched by federal officials in pursuit of classified documents. None of us knows whether Trump will face charges––or the merits of those charges if he does. Amid that uncertainty, some pundits warn that prosecuting any former president sets a bad precedent, especially when one of his political rivals is in the White House. Others counter that no one is above the law and anything other than following the facts is fraught. Noting that those perspectives are neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive, what do you think?

Send responses to conor@theatlantic.com.

Conversations of Note

This week the War on Drugs is top of mind for me because of an article I happened upon that features a quintessential example of what I’ve regarded for years as “War on Drugs logic.” That’s when you point to the catastrophic consequences of drug use that took place under prohibition in order to justify continuing those same prohibitionist policies.

The article was in The Washington Post, headlined “Colombia, Largest Cocaine Supplier to U.S., Considers Decriminalizing.” It carries a Bogotá dateline, notes that Colombia is “the source of more than 90 percent of the drug seized in the United States,” and proceeds to report:

Two weeks after taking office, the country’s first leftist government is proposing an end to “prohibition” and the start of a government-regulated cocaine market. Through legislation and alliances with other leftist governments in the region, officials in this South American nation hope to turn their country into a laboratory for drug decriminalization.

“It is time for a new international convention that accepts that the war on drugs has failed,” President Gustavo Petro said in his inaugural address this month.

It’s a radical turn in this historically conservative country, one that could upend its long-standing — and lucrative — counternarcotics relationship with the United States. U.S. officials past and present are signaling concern; the drug was responsible for an estimated 25,000 overdose deaths in the United States last year. “The United States and the Biden administration is not a supporter of decriminalization,” said Jonathan Finer, the White House deputy national security adviser, who met with Petro here before his inauguration.

About those 25,000 cocaine-overdose deaths––they didn’t just happen under the current policy of drug prohibition; they are a direct result of drug prohibition. Don’t take my word for it. See this press release from the Drug Enforcement Administration (emphasis added):

Fentanyl-related mass-overdose events, characterized as three or more overdoses occurring close in time and at the same location, have happened in at least seven American cities in recent months, resulting in 58 overdoses and 29 deaths …

Tragic events like these are being driven by fentanyl. Fentanyl is highly-addictive, found in all 50 states, and drug traffickers are increasingly mixing it with other illicit drugs—in powder and pill form—in an effort to drive addiction and attract repeat buyers. These mass-overdose events typically occur in one of the following recurring scenarios: when drug dealers sell their product as “cocaine,” when it actually contains fentanyl; or when drug dealers sell pills designed to appear nearly identical to legitimate prescriptions, but are actually fake prescription pills containing fentanyl. This is creating a frightening nationwide trend where many overdose victims are dying after unknowingly ingesting fentanyl.

Fentanyl is driving the nationwide overdose epidemic. The CDC estimates that in the 12-month period ending in October 2021, more than 105,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, with 66 percent of those deaths related to synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

Local health departments tell the same story. Here’s one from Illinois. Here’s another from Erie County, New York. And a third from Shasta County, California. Authorities across the nation basically agree that many people who want to buy pure cocaine are getting a fentanyl-laced product instead and dying in large numbers as a result, all under the current regime. Still, the Biden administration cites the overdose-death toll in the United States last year as if it is an argument for continuing the prohibitionist status quo rather than changing it.

The Post article doesn’t mention fentanyl, but it does detail the fact that under the War on Drugs approach, “the Colombian trade has reached record levels,” tripling in the last decade, and that the U.S. is aware of the bloodshed in Colombia that prohibition guarantees. Put more simply, the status quo has immiserated a foreign country for decades, enriching its most sociopathic residents, while coinciding with record cocaine exports to the U.S. and spiking overdose deaths because a black market means no safeguards against fentanyl. The bipartisan consensus that continues to stand in defense of this deadly status quo is a moral abomination.

Fear Not Failure

On what would have been Kobe Bryant’s 44th birthday, the NBA great, who died in a 2020 helicopter crash, was remembered in an unusual tribute published by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time. Abdul-Jabbar notes that Bryant holds the record for the most missed shots in NBA history––then argues that the statistic is to Bryant’s great credit:

Some people—not just athletes—are motivated in life by the fear of losing. They strive and hustle and push because they don’t want to fail. That fear of failure is often rooted in anxiety about how they will look to others. They see themselves only as they are reflected in others’ eyes.

However, the great ones are driven not to win, but to exceed their own expectations. The goal is to strive to reach one’s fullest potential—and sometimes push beyond what even they imagined that potential might be. Winning is not the goal, it’s a happy by-product.

Kobe Bryant holds the record for most missed shots in NBA history. To some that’s a bad thing. To me, it means he wasn’t intimidated by missing, by losing, by failure. He didn’t hesitate by worrying, “What if I miss? What will the coaches think? The team? The fans?” He acted like the ultimate competitor: he took the shot. To take the shot is to embrace failure and success at the same time. To miss so much and yet feel confident enough to shoot again and again embodies the best qualities of human beings: to imagine something beyond what is, beyond what you’ve ever been able to do, and to strive to make that a reality, no matter how many times you fail. We love Kobe because he wasn’t afraid to take the shot.

I’m reminded of Rudyard Kipling’s call to “meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same.” That’s how Bryant and other once-in-a-generation athletes excel over time.

Surrounded by Illiberalism

Jonathan Chait is a harsh critic of post-liberal progressivism. He believes it poses “a problem that has anathematized dissent at many elite universities, private schools, media and entertainment organizations, nonprofits, and other progressive spaces.” Still, he is convinced the right is worse. “If you have serious concerns about the spread of these illiberal norms and feel tempted to vote Republican as a corrective measure, you should ask yourself a question,” he writes in a recent New York column. “Does electing Republicans make this problem better or worse?”

He focuses on Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, opining that “DeSantis has no principled objection to blacklisting, censorship, or propagandistic indoctrination. All he wants is for the whip to be in his own hand. Figures like Trump and DeSantis sell themselves as the masters of the cultural fight, striking fear into their quavering enemies.” In turn, the post-liberal part of the left, “for all its loathing of the right, also has a curious appreciation for it. Every time a reactionary poses as a champion of free speech on campus, the left erupts in smug mockery of the liberals who advocated those ideals in earnest.”

Chait sympathizes with those caught in the middle, but is firm about the choice he believes they should make. “I understand perfectly well the frustrations of liberals and moderates who have watched progressives all around them lose their minds. The key thing to understand is that the illiberalism of the left is a subcultural phenomenon while the illiberalism of the right has state power within its grasp,” he writes. “There is no failure of liberal norms on the left that the Republican Party cannot make immeasurably more dire.” I have agreed in the last two elections.

Is DeSantis the Successor to Trump?

Kari Lake was a longtime TV-news anchor in Arizona. Now she is running for governor of the state. And last week, according to The Arizona Republic, she stood on stage at a political rally and praised DeSantis by suggesting to the crowd that beneath it all he is extraordinarily … well-endowed:

The guy has bigger ... Wait, let me think about how I want to word this. My staff always says, “Whatever you do, do not say balls.” So I'm not going to say it. That guy has a backbone made of steel. I’ll tell you what he’s got. I don’t know if you’d heard of this. He’s got “BDE.” Anybody know what that means? Ask your kids about it later. I call it “Big DeSantis Energy.” Right? He’s got the same kind of BDE that President Trump has. And, frankly, he’s got the same kind of BDE that we want all of our elected leaders to have.

At The Bulwark, Jonathan Last flags that moment to explain why he doesn’t believe DeSantis is the future of the Republican Party:

One of the fundamental appeals of Donald Trump was his unpredictability. You knew that when Trump took the stage, anything could happen. Depending on your view, this was either energizing or terrifying. DeSantis gives you none of that. He’s a disciplined pol. He’s never going to suggest that you ingest bleach or say that he’ll pay for your legal bills if you punch a protestor. Hell, he even outsources his Twitter triggering to his staff so that he’s not personally on the hook for the stuff he has them say on his behalf.

There’s a reason that Donald Trump did not need a Christina Pushaw, but Ron DeSantis does. All of which is to say that I suspect the real heir to Trumpism will be someone much crazier and less predictable.

Can you imagine DeSantis riffing about “Big Dick Energy” in front of a crowd? Because I cannot. Kari Lake gives you a frisson of danger similar to Trump. She’s more authentically crazy than DeSantis. She’s a better speaker and is better on TV than DeSantis. If she wins the governorship in Arizona, I think she instantly becomes the leading candidate for Trump’s VP and the most obvious heir to the MAGA throne. And whatever happens to Lake, I suspect that Trumpism’s heir will be more like her and less like DeSantis.

Damon Linker agrees:

The shit-talking side of Trumpism isn’t sufficient, but it is as necessary as the paleocon policy mix and the combativeness on cultural issues. And that might make Trumpism a uniquely American variant of right-wing populism. Pick your foreign alternative: Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Marine Le Pen in France, the AfD Party in Germany, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, the Law and Justice Party in Poland, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Narendra Modi in India—none of them lead Trump-style, insult-driven, shock-talk rallies before a live audience of thousands and a TV and digital audience of millions who delight in the boorish spectacle. (Though, come to think of it, there may be a bit of overlap in trashiness with Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and the Five-Star Movement in Italy.)

A Trump rally (or one for Lake or Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano) is a blend of a standard political rally with an evangelical tent revival and a big-top circus led by a conman (or conwoman) who serves as a ringmaster of the (barely) controlled pandemonium. The bright lights, amplified music, and television cameras—not to mention the demotic crudeness—make it a modern event. But the form has deep roots in the American experience. Trump managed to tap into those historical antecedents with his rallies. And it may well be that the politician most capable of reproducing and even expanding on such public events is the one who will rise above the various contenders to succeed the former president as head of the Republican Party and leader of its right-wing-populist crusade.

Perhaps they are correct. But I’m not yet convinced, because it seems clear to me that no one else combines Trump’s celebrity, charisma, wealth, instincts, and extraordinary lack of shame. Here’s a case for the proposition that Trump’s successor as head of the Republican Party is very likely to be unlike him: That is usually how things happen in American politics. In 1988, the GOP would have loved another Ronald Reagan, but there was no one else like him. In 2000, the Democrats would have loved someone with Bill Clinton’s charisma rather than Al Gore’s lack of it. In 2016, the Democrats would have loved another Barack Obama, but nobody fit the bill. Even coalitions that want a carbon copy of the last big thing often cannot get it.

Provocation of the Week

In The New York Times earlier this month, German Lopez observed that:

America’s homelessness problem has the makings of an acute crisis. Shelters across the U.S. are reporting a surge in people looking for help, with wait lists doubling or tripling in recent months. The number of homeless people outside of shelters is also probably rising, experts say. Some of them live in encampments, which have popped up in parks and other public spaces in major cities from Washington, D.C., to Seattle since the pandemic began.

The Washington Post reports that “inflation is making homelessness worse.”

I wish I knew how to solve this complex problem. My informed hunch is that building more housing would help, at least in California, the jurisdiction with which I am most familiar. Others focus on urging improvements to the mental-health-care system, drug-and-alcohol-rehabilitation programs, or job-training programs, or even overthrowing capitalism in America.

In history, Marxism has impoverished people more dramatically than it has lifted people out of poverty, but even it strikes me as more likely to help homeless people than the questionable focus of some housing activists: “Our unhoused neighbors are human, and the language we use should reflect that,” the L.A. Homeless Services Authority tweeted this week, continuing an ongoing trend. “Let's abandon outdated, ‘othering,’ and dehumanizing terminology- and instead, adopt people-centered language that emphasize personhood over housing status.” Instead of saying “the homeless” or “homeless people” or “the unhoused,” they urge saying “people experiencing homelessness” or “people who are unhoused” or “people living outside.”

While I agree that our language should reflect the fact that homeless people are as fully human and worthy of love as anyone else, I reject the strange conceit that “people experiencing homelessness” vests them with more humanity than “homeless people.” I feel no less human if you call me a “writer” as opposed to a “person who writes,” and I deny that a “person who murders” is any more or less dignified than “murderer.” Substantively, both are killers. Whether you’re homeless or a person experiencing homelessness, I recognize your dignity––and I want these distracting word games to stop. Last year in Architectural Digest, Nicholas Slayton wrote:

In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti and some members of the city council have embraced unhoused. In Seattle the city government uses the phrase person experiencing homelessness. That’s also what the Centers for Disease Control used in guidance for how to aid unhoused people during the COVID-19 pandemic; the word homeless is used only as an adjective. The change is happening in part as governments move away from punitive measures amid a deepening housing crisis. Past efforts have not resolved the matter, and both policy and messaging are shifting.

What was that messaging shift worth? Well, homelessness is up. So are the deaths of homeless people. And Los Angeles has just passed a sweeping ban on homeless encampments near schools, while, according to the Los Angeles Times, leaders in “liberal cities across the country” where “people living in tents in public spaces have long been tolerated” are “removing encampments and pushing other strict measures to address homelessness that would have been unheard of a few years ago.”

The much-vaunted embrace of newspeak accomplished nothing. It tends to confuse most people who aren’t paying attention, annoy most people who are paying attention, and achieve no substantive good. To better help people, progressive nonprofits should stop making it a focus.

As ever, thanks for all your emails, and dissents are always welcome. See you next week.