White House Opioid Plan: Recycled ‘War on Drugs’?

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Marijuana legalization rally in Washington D.C, 2011. Photo by Elvert Barnes via Flickr.

With the federal shutdown temporarily at bay, it’s back-to-school time for the White House, which recently released a drug policy report strikingly reminiscent of former President Reagan’s “Just Say No” response to the so-called “crack epidemic” of the 1980s—and of the hardline rhetoric of the Nixon administration.

The “National Drug Control Strategy” report issued last week by the White House Office of Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) asserts that the current opioid crisis is “unprecedented,” while seeming to undercut claims by President Trump and his advisers that the “Wall” is critical to stopping the flow of illicit drugs into the U.S.

According to some critics, the report is simplistic.

The 20-page report reads “like a book report from a student who may or may not have read the book, and who may or may not have wrote his report on the bus ride to school,” carped Reason.com.

The report’s “policy priorities” will surprise no one who has advocated for focusing policymakers’ attention on an epidemic held responsible for 130 overdose deaths a day.

  • Reduce the size of the drug-using population through education and prevention programs;
  • Remove barriers to long-term recovery programs; and
  • “Aggressively reducing the availability of illicit drugs in America’s communities.”

But it rachets up the rhetoric, noting that “the drug crisis our country faces today is unprecedented,” warning that it has “evolved over the past several decades and has steadily worsened with time,” directly affecting every state and county and “every socio-economic group.”

In fact, by the administration’s own admission, opioid deaths have begun to plateau. Speaking last October at the Milken Institute, Health Secretary Alex Azar said, “We are…far from the end of the epidemic, but we are perhaps at the end of the beginning.”

The Centers on Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has drawn similar conclusions, with a finding that overdose deaths dropped in 14 states during the 12-month period ending in July 2017, while noting that fatalities from deadly synthetic opioids such as fentanyl continue to be a concern.

The report notes that in 2017, 68 percent of roughly 70,000 overdoses were primarily caused by synthetic opioids. Synthetic opioids have also seen a marked 413 percent increase in overdoses from 2014.

Heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, and prescription opioids have also been responsible for increased overdose deaths since 2014, according to CDC figures cited in the administration’s report.

Combating Illicit Drug Supply

The report claims, without providing empirical evidence, that almost all the illicit drugs causing American overdose deaths are produced outside of the U.S. and trafficked across the nation’s borders.

But by its own implication, stopping the flow of drugs into the U.S. is more complicated than constructing a physical border wall, the centerpiece of President Trump’s immigration strategy.

“[T]raffickers continue to refine their methods and adopt new techniques for delivering potent illicit drugs to our communities,” the report said.

According to the paper, traffickers increasingly use international mail and express consignment carriers, a transport and delivery method which eliminates the risk of drug seizures during failed border crossings.

Traffickers are also increasing their use of cryptocurrency such as BitCoin, which allows participants throughout the drug supply chain to transact business virtually anonymously.

Furthermore, The Crime Report cites US Customs and Border Protection data showing that the vast majority of fentanyl, methamphetamine, and other illicit drug seizures occur at official, rather than illicit, points of entry.

Echoing the rhetoric of the “War on Drugs” launched by the Nixon administration in the 1970s, the report asserts that “responding to the aggressive trafficking and distribution techniques of [drug trafficking organizations] is an urgent national security and law enforcement priority.”

The so-called “War,” which was one of the key factors that drove the rise in U.S. mass incarceration, has been discredited by critics on both the left and the right.

But the current administration has added some new wrinkles.

Focusing its attention on international coca production, the administration even blamed the Colombian peace process for the resurgence of cocaine in domestic drug markets.

The increased cultivation of coca and production of cocaine in Colombia, the source of more than 90 percent of the cocaine in the U.S. market, has once again reached record levels.

Moreover, the suspension of aerial eradication programs in Colombia during its peace process, from 2015 until today, has led to even greater yield from coca plants, resulting in increased production and purity levels. Cocaine use in the United States started rising again after many years of decline.

These passing comments on the Colombian peace process offer insight into the administration’s interest in “drastically curbing the supply of illegal drugs through […] cooperation with international partners to combat drug trafficking.”

Prevention and Recovery: Support for MAT

In other respects, the administration’s objectives tend toward less controversial methods.

The ONDCP plans to implement a nationwide mass media campaign, primarily using social media to warn youth about the harmful consequences of opioid use, and will work to strengthen CDC guidelines regarding safe opioid prescription practices.

The administration will also work to expand the use of prescription drug monitoring programs, which ensure that patients receive safe, non-toxic combinations of medicine from a consistent provider. These and other programs can help state, local, and tribal communities to prevent substance abuse from over-prescription, the White House said.

For those recovering from opioid addiction, the administration went as far as to endorse the use and expansion of Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT), even for incarcerated individuals.

MAT is a harm reduction program that provides barbiturates to individuals suffering from Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) to gradually ease them into treatment and recovery.

The administration also acknowledged that it must expand treatment insurance coverage and ease the process of reimbursement, moves which it believes will encourage individuals with OUD on the margins of financial stability to initiate treatment that was previously not financially viable.

Finally, the report advocates for the expanded use of drug courts and pre-arrest diversion programs for individuals arrested for non-violent drug-related offenses, which it argues “will foster entrance into treatment programs and away from the cycle of destructive and self-defeating behaviors that is the hallmark of the disease of addiction.”

The full report is available here.

Roman Gressier is a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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