Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) subjected himself to mockery when he called for a “war on drugs” as a solution to the current opioid epidemic.
“We need to declare a war on drugs, on a list of drugs,” Manchin told CNN’s Jake Tapper, and suggested mimicking efforts by “reformed addicts.”
“They got started out as a kid smoking…what we call recreational marijuana, and then from there, that led into prescriptions taken out of their parents’ or grandparents, medicine cabinet and become a cool kid, and before you know it, it turned in to where they just were hooked,” Manchin said.
Manchin was mocked for using the “war on drug” phrase since, of course, there has been a war on drugs since the 1970s, and it has been roundly criticized.
Here are nine things to know about the war on drugs.
1. It is not a scheme to lock up blacks. Some critics of the drug war have argued that it is nothing more than an excuse to send African Americans to prison, citing the disproportionate rate at which blacks are incarcerated for drug crimes. They also point to a quote from a former aide to President Richard Nixon, who started the war on drugs.
“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin,” said John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s former domestic policy chief. “And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
The above quote has been disputed by Ehrlichman’s family, and it also doesn’t fit Nixon’s presidency. It’s also hard to argue that the drug war is racist when many black leaders supported laws subjecting crack cocaine crimes to stricter sentences — including the Congressional Black Caucus–since crack cocaine was tearing apart the black community.
“The absence of any charge by black members of Congress that the crack–powder differential was racially unfair speaks volumes; after all, several of these representatives had long histories of distinguished opposition to any public policy that smacked of racial injustice,” wrote Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy. “That several of these representatives demanded a crackdown on crack is also significant. It suggests that the initiative for what became the crack–powder distinction originated to some extent within the ranks of African-American congressional officials.”
In a piece for National Review, Roger Clegg notes that studies suggest the reason why blacks are disproportionately incarcerated for drug crimes is because they disproportionately commit drug crimes. “If a disproportionate number of those arrested for drug crimes are black, it is because a disproportionate number of drug criminals are black,” he writes. “It is not true that all groups use illegal drugs at the same rate, and in any event it is not for using drugs but for selling them that people are typically sent to prison.”
2. The drug war is not clogging up prisons. One of the criticisms of the war on drugs is that it is putting a strain on prison resources due to supposed over-incarceration. Heather Mac Donald noted in 2015 congressional testimony that the rise of prison populations has been the result of violent crime, not drug crime, and most of those who do reside in prison for drug crimes are the result of trafficking rather than simply possession:
Today, only 16 percent of state prisoners are serving time for drug offenses—nearly all of them for trafficking. Drug possession accounts for only 3.6 percent of state prisoners. Drug offenders make up a larger portion of the federal prison caseload—about 50 percent—but only 13 percent of the nation’s prisoners are under federal control. In 2014, less than 1 percent of sentenced drug offenders in federal court were convicted of simple drug possession; the rest were convicted of trafficking.
In other words, ending the drug war would do very little to reduce prison crowding, only a decrease in violent crime would do that.
3. Has the war on drugs actually failed? Many claim that it has, pointing to its hefty price tag and yet there hasn’t been much success in reducing drug use, comparing illegal drugs to prohibition. However, Ed Feulner has noted that when anti-drug messages were ramped up in the 1980s, there was a sharp decline in drug use, and numerous graphs and data substantiate this claim. Drug use didn’t increase until the early 1990s.
“Can it really be a coincidence that once those pervasive cultural messages dried up, that drug use began rising?” wrote Feulner “That the point at which we elected a president who ‘didn’t inhale’ (wink, wink) is when the downward trend in teen drug use began to reverse itself? Today’s teenagers are far more likely to get a pro-drug message from the culture, let alone a word of warning.”
Maybe the answer is to re-visit the anti-drug messages that at one point pervaded the culture, as the rising drug use seems to be a symptom of broader cultural rot, rather than simply declaring that the war on drugs has failed.
4. One of the reasons why the drug war has continued is because Mexico has failed to clamp down on the drug cartels. The drug cartels have grown rampant in Mexico in large part because the civilian police force is corrupt and won’t take the necessary actions to crack down on the cartels. In 2006, then-President Felipe Calderon pledged to used the Mexican military to quell the cartels, but the military has never been comfortable in that role and has been unable to defeat the cartels.
“We did not ask to be here, we do not feel comfortable here, we did not train to pursue criminals, our role is another and it has been distorted,” General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, the defense secretary, said. “We would love the police forces to do their job…but they don’t. Ten years ago it was decided that the police should be rebuilt, and we still haven’t seen that reconstruction…there is a lack of commitment on the part of a lot of sectors. This isn’t something that can be solved with bullets; it takes other measures and there hasn’t been decisive action on budgets to make that happen.”
As a result, the cartels are thriving in Mexico, and are supplying the U.S. with illegal drugs that feed the opioid epidemic. Securing the border would help prevent the drug cartels from doing business in the U.S., and could be a game-changer in the war on drugs.
5. The opioid epidemic is real, and has deadly consequences. The number of people who have died from prescription opioid or heroin overdose has increased nearly four-fold since 1999, resulting in more people dying from drug overdoses than from car crashes. The skyrocketing drug overdoses can be directly correlated to the rise in opioid prescriptions, which is a gateway to heroin use if not used properly.
6. The opioid epidemic is being exacerbated by certain government policies. Ken Blackwell notes in a Townhall column that there are two government policies that are worsening the epidemic. One is a loophole that allows China to export fentanyl into the U.S., a type of opioid that is 100 times more powerful than morphine and has resulted in numerous overdose deaths that are increasing at an alarming rate. In fact, a fentanyl overdose is what killed Prince.
The second policy that is worsening the problem is that in Ohio — a state that has been ravaged by the opioid epidemic — has seen too many resources from its Medicaid system devoted to a drug called Suboxone, which is constantly over-prescribed because it’s only available in “limited dosages.”
“As a result, we are seeing patients sell their excess strips on the black market for more than twice their value,” writes Blackwell. “Suboxone strips are also commonly smuggled into prisons and resold to inmates, compounding drug addiction problems in our prisons.”
Instead, Ohio’s Medicaid program could be spending resources on more effective, less damaging drugs than Suboxone.
7. The main cause of the opioid epidemic seems to be economic hardship. That’s the takeaway from this Washington Post passage: (emphasis bolded)
They drove to Huntington down a winding road known to some locals as the heroin highway, passing chemical plants and coal towns where opioid pain pills had first become popular as a salve for workers enduring long days in the mines. But, during the last decade alone, 65,000 of those mining jobs had disappeared from the West Virginia economy, and now there was so much more poverty, pain and hopelessness to chase away. Drug companies had bombarded West Virginia’s rural towns with record numbers of narcotics, according to court records: 300,000 tablets of hydrocodone to the mom-and-pop pharmacy in the town of War, population 808; half a million oxycodone pills to Kermit, population 400. During a five-year period ending in 2013, a single drug company had shipped more than 60 million doses of hydrocodone into a state with fewer than 1 million working-age adults.
Slate had a piece on if there was a causal relationship between the opioid epidemic and supporting Donald Trump — which the article refutes — but the article notes that any correlation between Trump supporters and the opioid epidemic may be due to the correlation “between the sluggish economic recovery in rural, mostly white areas and support for Trump.”
In other words, these areas experiencing despair from economic hardship went for Trump to improve their economic situation, while also turning to opioids to escape the economic pain.
8. Legalizing drugs wouldn’t improve the situation. Critics of the drug war have called for simply decriminalizing or legalizing drugs, arguing that it would eliminate the black market and make the dark nature of drugs fully out in the open where people have the freedom to use them or not.
In a piece for the Wall Street Journal in 2002, John Walters highlights some of the adverse effects legalizing drugs would have on society:
Legalization, by removing penalties and reducing price, would increase drug demand. Make something easier and cheaper to obtain, and you increase the number of people who will try it. Legalizers love to point out that the Dutch decriminalized marijuana in 1976, with little initial impact. But as drugs gained social acceptance, use increased consistently and sharply, with a 300% rise in use by 1996 among 18-20 year-olds.
Britain, too, provides an instructive example. When British physicians were allowed to prescribe heroin to certain addicts, the number skyrocketed. From 68 British addicts in the program in 1960, the problem exploded to an estimated 20,000 heroin users in London alone by 1982.
The idea that we can “solve” our complex drug problem by simply legalizing drugs raises more questions than it answers. For instance, what happens to the citizenship of those legally addicted? Will they have their full civil rights, such as voting? Can they be employed as school bus drivers? Nurses? What of a woman, legally addicted to cocaine, who becomes pregnant? Should she be constrained by the very government that provides for her habit?
Won’t some addicts seek larger doses than those medically prescribed? Or seek to profit by selling their allotment to others, including minors? And what about those promised tax revenues — how do they materialize? As it is, European drug clinics aren’t filled with productive citizens, but rather with demoralized zombies seeking a daily fix. Won’t drugs become a disability entitlement?
Walters also pointed out in a 2009 column that even if drug trafficking were to be remarkably slowed by legalizing drugs, the violence from drug trafficking pales in comparison to the fact that “roughly 80% of child abuse and neglect cases are tied to the use and abuse of drugs,” meaning that drug abusers have wreaked havoc in their communities through their drug-induced behavior. He also noted that other countries have been ravaged by legal, addictive drugs.
“Ancient China was brought to its knees by easy access to opium,” wrote Walters. “Today, even highly traditional and regulated societies like Thailand, Malaysia, Iran and Afghanistan are suffering terrible addiction problems — because heroin is addictive and easily accessible. Making highly addictive drugs easier to get and use is what makes this harm greater.”
9. One of the solutions for the opioid epidemic and drug war should be increasing treatment access. Blackwell pointed to the recent passage of a bill that he felt could help with the epidemic:
The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, sponsored by Ohio Senator Rob Portman recently passed with a bi-partisan vote of 92-2. The goal of this law is to shift focus away from fighting the drug war through mass incarceration, and build up America’s treatment capacity. It included, among other things, greater funding for law enforcement and treatment, andincreased the patient cap on doctors prescribing buprenorphine, a bridge treatment which reduces withdrawal symptoms and cravings that too often drive addicts back to drug dealers.
As noted earlier, incarceration is usually the result of violent crime and drug trafficking, not drug possession alone, but increased treatment access could be something on which supporters and critics of the war on drugs both would agree.