A Law-and-Order Approach to Opioids Won’t Work
President Trump announced on Aug. 8 that the federal government will adopt a law and order mindset to deal with heroin and prescription opioid abuse, calling it “a problem the likes of which we have never seen.” He said that the United States needs stricter law enforcement and a southern border wall to keep drugs out of the country. Unfortunately, harsh laws that target nonviolent drug users have never worked, and this crackdown will fail as well.
In 1986, the U.S. had its hands full with a different drug epidemic: crack. The increased use and violence that resulted from markets of this diluted form of cocaine prompted Congress to pass the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, establishing mandatory minimum sentences that condemned people possessing crack to the same punishment as someone possessing 100 times as much cocaine. For example, someone arrested with five ounces of crack would have the same mandatory minimum as someone caught with 500 ounces of cocaine powder, even though crack is a less pure, cheaper derivative of cocaine. The American Civil Liberties Union found that, as a result of this legislation, black Americans “now serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense at 58.7 months, as whites do for a violent offense at 61.7 months.”
Drug laws have become increasingly harsh and expensive in recent decades. From 1980 to 2015, average sentence length for drug offenders increased by just under 20 months while the average length of all other sentences dropped slightly. Additionally, the $6.7 billion/year federal prison system makes up just under a fourth of the entire Justice Department’s budget. That’s a staggering cost to keep nonviolent prisoners incarcerated. What’s worse, according to a Pew Research Center study, “taxpayers have not realized a strong public safety return.”
Many of the people incarcerated for drug offenses are not violent criminals, traffickers, or otherwise dangerous characters. Nonviolent offenders make up over 60 percent of the incarcerated population. Draconian drug laws, even those designed to combat trafficking, too often prey upon nonviolent users. Removing a user from the streets isn’t the same as removing the drug. If the Trump Administration decides to take a law enforcement heavy approach to the opioid crisis, Americans will see more wasteful spending to incarcerate a swath of drug users who pose no threat to society.
Trump’s own Opioid Commission, led by Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, even advised the president to tackle the problem using harm reduction and access to care rather than stricter drug laws. A study conducted by the Justice Policy Institute found that treatment is much more cost-effective than incarceration.
Americans are paying more money for the less effective solution, and it will only get worse if Trump’s approach wins the day.
Not only are taxpayers funding nonviolent offenders’ jail time, the economy as a whole is missing out on the wealth they could create if they were free. The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan New York University Law School institute, found in 2016 that 39 percent of state and federal inmates are incarcerated “with little public safety rationale.” These roughly 579,000 people are draining money from the system when they could be working and contributing to the economy.
Rather than expand an already oppressive system of predatory drug laws, the federal government should decriminalize opioids and incentivize states to provide harm reduction services. Decriminalization would still allow law enforcement to prosecute traffickers and smugglers, but nonviolent users would be spared from incarceration.
It may seem counterintuitive to decriminalize a drug to reduce its harm, but it works. When drugs are illegal, manufacturers increase their potency, making them more dangerous. It isn’t as lucrative to traffic low-potency opioids if they’re illegal, so users are left with harmfully strong heroin and fentanyl rather than something milder to sate their addiction. Portugal decriminalized all drugs in 2001, and the rate of overdose deaths fell to roughly one fourth what it was before decriminalization. The U.S. could benefit from following Portugal’s lead.
Trump’s law and order approach to the opioid situation will only make matters worse. Targeting users has never worked, and it never will. Decriminalization and harm reduction will prove to be cheaper and more effective in the long run, but the current administration seems hell-bent on harming addicts rather than fixing the problem.
Dylan Moore is currently a Young Voices Advocate and an undergraduate student at Indiana University. Follow him on Twitter @d_v_moore.