In a speech officially unveiling his administration's plan to combat the nation's ongoing opioid epidemic, President Donald Trump on Monday saod he would fight the crisis with "toughness", the creation of "very...very...bad commercials" aimed at children; and—as expected—proposed that the death penalty be applied to drug dealers.
However, as drug policy reform advocates feared, he showed little understanding of the origins of the crisis and neglected to mention numerous measures public health experts have advocated for to stop the deadly epidemic.
A key tenet of Trump's plan to combat the crisis, which killed nearly 64,000 Americans in 2016, is to launch an advertising campaign showing the effects of opioid use.
"The best way to beat the drug crisis is to keep people from getting hooked on drugs to begin with," he told a crowd in Manchester, N.H. "As part of that effort—so important, this is something I've been strongly in favor of—spending a lot of money on great commercials showing how bad it is."
The ads, Trump added, would be "very...very...bad commercials...And when they see those commercials, hopefully they're not going to be going to drugs of any kind."
Trump expresses support for anti-drug commercials aimed at kids to stop them from getting addicted to opioids: "That's the least expensive thing we can we do, where you scare them from ending up like the people in the commercials" pic.twitter.com/rIgUmRBMHL
— BuzzFeed News (@BuzzFeedNews) March 19, 2018
The proposal struck critics as similar to First Lady Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign of the 1980s, which has been denounced as "simplistic and vague" and which studies have shown did not make young Americans any less likely to use drugs.
Trump today called for "great commercials" that show kids "how bad" drugs are. As we explained recently, that strategy has been tried and hasn't worked. https://t.co/JSu2WDOjEo
— The Upshot (@UpshotNYT) March 19, 2018
Scare tactics & “Just Say No” programs are not effective. It’s better to equip our young people and parents with real information. https://t.co/GvZKxYyooI
— Drug Policy Alliance (@DrugPolicyOrg) March 19, 2018
While Trump spent a large portion of his speech talking about keeping kids away from drugs, statistics show that Americans in their 50s and 60s are most at risk for overdosing on prescription opioids—a major driver of the overall crisis.
The prevalence of heroin abuse is of greater concern among younger Americans, but recent studies have shown that three-quarters of people who began using heroin in the 2000s abused prescription opioid painkillers first. Doctors have suggested that lax prescribing practices within their own profession continue to contribute to the opioid crisis—calling into question the notion that commercials would successfully steer Americans away from the drugs.
The president also linked the epidemic to immigration, urging Democrats to back his plan to "build the wall to keep the damn drugs out" and leading audience members in the chant, "Build the wall!"
But drug policy experts say that tougher border security would have little to no effect on the prevalence of drugs in the U.S.
"A wall alone cannot stop the flow of drugs into the United States," Christopher Wilson of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, told Vox last year. "...history shows us that border enforcement has been much more effective at changing the when and where of drugs being brought into the United States rather than the overall amount of drugs being brought into the United States."
Critics also expressed shock at the president's proposal to seek the death penalty for drug dealers—a plan that was hinted at last week. Trump has expressed admiration for Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte's drug war—which has resulted in the deaths of thousands, many in poor communities—and the stringent drug policies applied by Singapore's government.
"We can have all the blue ribbon committees we want but if we don't get tough on the drug dealers we're wasting our time...and that toughness includes the death penalty," said the president.
Trump wants to "get tough" on drug dealers, saying he's for giving them the death penalty pic.twitter.com/wTltOjBBuw
— VICE News (@vicenews) March 19, 2018
The remark was condemned on social media by many, including drug policy experts, who have long said drug addition should be treated as a public health issue instead of a criminal matter.
— Todd Ruger (@ToddRuger) March 19, 2018
Anyone casually invoking taking the life of someone needs to be put in time out, including the POTUS. If you are not willing to clearly articulate a precise definition for what counts as taking someone’s life for an action, you have zero credibility and should be treated as such.
— Bryan William Jones (@BWJones) March 19, 2018
Text from govt health official:
“Potus remarks are a full-on War on Drugs scare fest. Health policy staff are extremely disappointed by this divisive rhetoric, and his focus on actions that we know don’t work.”
— Dan Diamond (@ddiamond) March 19, 2018
Had heard from health officials who were crossing their fingers that Trump would lay off death penalty language and focus on the many public health proposals in the plan.
— Dan Diamond (@ddiamond) March 19, 2018