The War on Drugs 3.0 began in earnest just last week. And it could have the same devastating effect on communities of color as the ones that came before.
In Manchester, New Hampshire—the hardest-hit city in a state that’s become the epicenter of America’s opioid crisis—President Trump announced a new plan ostensibly designed to combat the epidemic. The president played something of a warrior king, promising a far-reaching campaign to curtail prescriptions and a crackdown on illegal drug use. “Drug traffickers kill so many thousands of our citizens every year, and that’s why my Department of Justice will be seeking much tougher penalties than we ever have,” he pledged. “That penalty is going to be the death penalty.”
Trump’s rhetoric is, of course, familiar. Like his predecessors Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan—who presided over the last major escalations in anti-drug policy—Trump anchored his appeal with a promise to return to law and order. And he vowed to use a similar tool: a federal dragnet to stop dealers with force, even lethal force if necessary.
But it’s the places where Trump’s strategy differs from his predecessors’ that marks a truly novel turn in policy. On the demand side, the administration proposed some new public-health-oriented policies for treating substance use that advocates have clamored for. And on the supply side, Trump pushed strongly for capital punishment—a measure that is legal, but has rarely been used within a drug-trafficking context. On the whole, the new War on Drugs endorses developments in drug policy that may only deepen the vast racial divides within the American criminal-justice system: sympathy for a mostly white base of users, and naked aggression toward people of color.