'Wrong Way to Go': Experts Warn Trump Opioid Declaration Could Revitalize Failed War on Drugs

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'Wrong Way to Go': Experts Warn Trump Opioid Declaration Could Revitalize Failed War on Drugs

"This is not a problem that we can incarcerate our way out of."

With 142 deaths from opioid overdoses per day, drug policy experts have demanded that the government increase access to treatment instead of dealing with the opioid crisis as a law enforcement issue.

With 142 deaths from opioid overdoses per day, drug policy experts have demanded that the government increase access to treatment instead of dealing with the opioid crisis as a law enforcement issue. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty)

Drug policy experts are critical of the praise that some have given President Donald Trump following his announcement Thursday that he would classify the opioid epidemic a national emergency.

An emergency declaration regarding a public health crisis can put pressure on Congress to increase funding and resources to help combat the issue. But according to Trump's statement on Wednesday about the opioid epidemic, which killed more than 30,000 people in 2015, his strategy in combating it will be focused far more on prosecuting drug offenders and urging young people to "just say no" to drugs, than it will on treating the two million Americans who struggle with opioid addition.

Public health experts from government agencies and advocacy groups have long said the epidemic should be treated as a public health crisis and not as a crime problem. And the effectiveness of Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" initiative in the 1980s has been called into question.

With Trump's plans to crack down on drug offenders in mind, civil rights advocates are skeptical of his declaration.

"Trump's emergency declaration is likely going to amount to very little in the way of greater access to treatment and other help from the federal government," said Grant Smith of the Drug Policy Alliance. "What it could mean though is Trump and his attorney general Jeff Sessions using the emergency declaration to step up the kind of 'strong law enforcement' response to the opioid crisis that Sessions has been pursuing all along."

Sessions has called for harsh sentences for drug offenders, rolling back the Obama administration's reforms which pushed prosecutors to avoid mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders.

"Increasing the number of drug-related prosecutions, as Trump championed earlier this week, is the wrong way to go," said Ames Grawert of the Brennan Center for Justice. "This is not a problem that we can incarcerate our way out of. Instead we need to make sure people suffering from addiction have access to the treatment they need to get better."

Trump made no mention of the importance of increasing access to treatment in either of his statements on opioids this week, and has supported legislation that would impose severe cuts to Medicaid—which allows three in 10 people suffering from opioid addiction to get treatment.

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