The War on Drugs Resurrected

Jeff Sessions at Department of Justice (Photo: DOJ)
Jeff Sessions at Department of Justice (Photo: DOJ)

Attorney General Jeff Sessions outlined his ideas on fighting violent crime and “restoring” public safety before federal, state and local law enforcement in Virginia on March 15.

In his remarks, Sessions painted a picture of a sudden spike in violent crime in the US while “our nation is in the throes of a heroin and opioid epidemic.” Sessions emphasized a nexus between the drug addiction crisis and this new wave of violent crime while presenting the drug epidemic primarily as an import.

“Illegal drugs are flooding across our southern border and into cities across our country, bringing violence, addiction, and misery. We have also seen an increase in the trafficking of new, low-cost heroin by Mexican drug cartels working with local street gangs. As the market for this heroin expands, gangs fight for territory and new customers and neighborhoods are caught in the crossfire.”

This is in line with President Trump’s law-and-order approach and his view that one of the major weapons to combat the opioid epidemic ravaging America should be a wall along the border with Mexico. A few days after his inauguration, Mr. Trump even suggested that Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto would be "very willing" to accept US military support to fight the drug cartels in Mexico.

In his speech, Attorney General Sessions mentioned “three main ways to fight the scourge of drugs: criminal enforcement, treatment and prevention.” After the “essential” criminal enforcement, treatment gets the briefest of mentions and is described as often coming “too late to save people from addiction or death.” That leaves us with prevention.

In language reminiscent of the “War on Drugs” of the 20th century, Sessions spoke of his “unfashionable belief in a time of growing tolerance of drug use.” In fact, Sessions seems to believe that the “War on Drugs” was actually a big success:

“In the ’80s and ’90s, we saw how campaigns stressing prevention brought down drug use and addiction. We can do this again. Educating people and telling them the terrible truth about drugs and addiction will result in better choices.”

The Washington Post reported that Sessions told reporters after his speech “we need to say, as Nancy Reagan said, ‘Just say no.’ There’s no excuse for this, it’s not recreational.”

The assessment of Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in his comprehensive report on addiction was different. “Despite decades of expense and effort focused on a criminal justice–based model for addressing substance use-related problems, substance misuse remains a national public health crisis that continues to rob the United States of its most valuable asset: its people.”

As addiction journalist Maia Szalavitz points out in Unbroken Brain, “addiction is defined by using a drug or activity in a compulsive manner despite negative consequences.” So if punishment (or telling them the “terrible truth” about drugs) worked to fight addiction, the condition could not exist. “In this light, the idea that other sorts of threats or painful experiences will stop addiction makes no sense,” writes Szalavitz.

The Attorney General’s statements also seem to imply a departure from the view that addiction is really a medical disorder and not the byproduct of criminal activity “flooding across our southern border.” Sessions homed in on illicit drug use, pointing out that currently about 140 Americans on average die from a drug overdose each day. But he didn’t mention that a lot of the opioids are prescription drugs originating in the United States or that even more Americans—240 each day—die from the consequences of alcohol abuse which has nothing to do with Mexican drug cartels.

Unlike Dr.Murthy, Sessions doesn’t present addiction as a public health crisis when he says “to turn back this rising tide of violent crime, we need to confront the heroin and opioid crisis in our nation.”

Sessions seems to view addiction primarily as a law enforcement issue: “We will enforce our laws and put bad men behind bars. We will fight the scourge of drug abuse. And we will support the brave men and women of law enforcement, as they work day and night to protect us.”

It remains to be seen what law enforcement officers around the country will make of this. In recent years, quite a number of police departments followed the example of Gloucester, MA and adopted a radically new approach to deal with addiction, keeping nonviolent offenders out of jail and instead getting them into treatment to help beat their addictions.

This change has largely been driven by the growing realization that old methods of incarcerating addicts did little to reduce the number of substance use disorders or overdose deaths.