The Weakness of Trump's Plan to Fight Opioids

Instead of shaking up the status quo, the self-proclaimed outsider doubles down on an approach that has failed to stop drug abuse for more than six decades.

Bryan Woolston / Reuters

When voters elected Donald Trump, they knew that he lacked governing experience. But many felt an outsider was needed to shake up a failed status quo. The calculation was especially understandable for folks hit hardest by the opioid epidemic. Under the status quo, they saw addiction and death ravaging their communities.

Why wouldn’t they favor radical change?

But President Trump hasn’t brought an outsider’s perspective to the opiate crisis. He hasn’t challenged the entrenched assumptions of career politicians in Washington, D.C., or proposed sweeping changes to America’s approach to narcotics.

Instead, he convened a panel to study the matter, then announced he is doubling down on “law and order.” He promised an increase in federal drug prosecutions and longer sentences for convicts. Is there anything more Washington, D.C., than doubling down on the War on Drugs? I’ve criticized literally every president since Nixon for extending this failure. A portion of the public trusted Trump to solve this crisis. And all he has to offer is weak appeals to policies that have failed for six decades.

“President Donald Trump on Tuesday vowed his administration would beat the opioid epidemic by beefing up law enforcement and strengthening security on the southern border to stop illegal drugs from entering the country,” Politico reports. “Trump, joined in New Jersey by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and other administration officials, emphasized a tough law-and-order approach, rather than new treatment or social programs, as the White House's primary strategy for halting an epidemic that kills 142 Americans every day, according to federal statistics.”

PBS has video of those remarks.

Richard Nixon couldn’t stop drugs from entering the country. Neither could Ronald Reagan. Neither could George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, or Barack Obama. Most American prisons cannot even prevent illegal drugs from reaching the prisoners. Why does Trump think his efforts will be different? How can he possibly believe that he will be able to end this epidemic by stopping the supply of drugs from abroad?

He also spoke about talking to young people and telling them drugs are dangerous. Does he imagine that parents and schools are not already giving such warnings? He’s so out of touch you’d think he spent bygone decades living in a luxury Manhattan high-rise or a Palm Beach resort and passed his leisure hours at fancy country clubs.

Many Americans with addiction problems first received opiates not from a drug dealer with a fresh batch of heroin from Mexico, but in the form of pills that their doctors told them to take. Over time, thanks in part to irresponsible behavior by pharmaceutical companies and doctors, they became very dependent on opioid painkillers, then moved on to cheaper opiates that they bought on the street to get their fix. But like a good denizen of the Swamp, Trump casts the blame on foreigners.

Foreigners don’t vote or make campaign contributions.

Opiate addicts will not be in their right minds again without effective addiction treatment. Some will beg or plead for pain pills from family members or friends, just this once, just a few pills; loved ones will see them suffer if they refuse to give them the pills; or they will be so poor that the temptation to sell a pill will be too hard to resist.Throwing such people into cages alongside murderers, rapists, child molesters, and members of violent street gangs would be inhumane and useless, and therefore immoral.

There are ways to fight the opiate epidemic that would be more humane and effective. Folks currently addicted to opiates need sustained treatment options that they can afford. What kind of country would rather pay to incarcerate them than to treat them? And the American medical system needs to shift some of its pain management away from opiates toward everything from medical marijuana to yoga.

Having an outsider president who aligns himself with one of the most failed, costly policies of the last six decades is the worst of both worlds. He is inexperienced, erratic, and lacks the ability to see better approaches than the insiders he has spent so long attacking.