BY GRANT BONHAM
President Donald Trump has left hundreds of key government positions vacant since becoming president. Now, a year since his election, these vacancies are taking a toll on the organizations left without proper staff. The U.S. State Department – which President Trump previously stated would undergo budget cuts – is operating as slowly as Trump intended, with a high number of decision-making positions still vacant. These vacancies have especially impacted offices like the Office of National Drug Policy (ONDCP), which functions as the executive branch’s office of drug oversight and policy enforcement. This office would be a main channel for President Trump to plan and execute strategies to tackle the country’s opioid epidemic. Opioid users voted in higher rates for President Trump, so vacancies in ONDCP are particularly surprising because it represents the failure of a president that had promised to do everything he can to solve such a crisis. Taylor Weyeneth, who was appointed Deputy Chief of Staff of the ONDCP by the Trump administration, recently stepped down amid controversy over his background and suitability for the role. Weyeneth lacked experience in drug policy or a related field and had only graduated college nine months before his appointment.
President Trump’s appointment of Weyeneth was particularly malicious, as it once again highlights a presidency that refuses to prioritize drug use problems in the U.S. Weyeneth was given the position because the Trump administration did not take the role seriously. By doing this, they are signaling how little they are willing to commit to effective drug policy. On the other side of this issue, President Trump has sent Attorney General Jeff Sessions to prosecute states which allow for the recreational use of marijuana. These states, which are mostly blue, acted in violation of federal drug policy in passing these laws, but President Obama’s justice department made it clear that they had “bigger fish to fry” than aggressively pursuing marijuana policy across the states. Not only is Trump avoiding making the necessary appointments to help prevent illegal drug use, he is also attempting to criminalize legal drug users. These moves represent a regression back to an archaic war on drugs declared and sustained by administrations in the past. This criminalization of fairly harmless users, alongside a watered down system of support for those who need it, characterizes the classic American assault on drugs that has been destructive for the last forty years.
The “war on drugs” began figuratively and literally by President Richard Nixon’s proclamation in June 1971. His speech, laced with Vietnam war parallels, delineated his intent to make drug abuse “public enemy number one.” What followed was the largest increase of federal drug control agencies in American history, alongside an erosion of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. Through mandatory sentencing requirements and no-knock search warrants, President Nixon weaponized local and federal police forces to strip Americans of their freedoms, using the banner of drug prevention as a covert way to erode the Constitution. This policy preference was inherently political, and former Nixon aide John Ehrlichman later admitted, “The Nixon campaign had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people.” Nixon’s agenda marked some of the most radical and aggressive drug policy in the world at the time, kickstarting what would become forty years of mass incarceration and high rates of drug related deaths. This new incarceration system was a systematic targeting of minority communities used to suppress their vote for political gain. Nixon created an enemy in his own citizens, a black enemy, and unleashed a newer, more powerful federal government that would perpetuate racist images against black Americans. In the name of “peace and security,” President Nixon created a federal police force that began the United States on a path of self-destruction that is still being manifested today.
Nixon was succeeded six years later by President Ronald Reagan, who, along with First Lady Nancy Reagan, led the second wave attack on drug use in the United States. The United States government and public continued to fuel the perception that drug users were an evil that must be squashed. Summoning the patriotism of the Cold War, media portrayals of drug users were devastating to compassionate care, and showed users as dirty, in control of their own addictions, and hedonists looking to harm all around them. Nancy’s slogan, “Just say no,” codified the lack of depth behind their logic, and showed that the Reagan administration was prepared to jail hundreds of thousands of people with little thought. There were only 50,000 nonviolent drug offenders in prison in 1980, but by 1997 this number reached over 400,000. Zero tolerance policies, an abandonment of rehabilitation centers, stricter controls, and tighter penalties made any level of drug use in the United States a terrible crime and cornered drug users into a life cycle of jail and homelessness. While Nixon planted the seeds for a militarized police force, Reagan furthered this militarization and began institutionalizing black male youth at a devastating rate. This mass incarceration was a racial milling of the public and a targeted destruction of a demographic that had never voted Republican. President Reagan was a wartime president, elected towards the end of a virtually silent war and, to replace his desire for combat, he began imprisoning his own citizens. It was apparently clear that the only room for blacks in Reagan’s America was inside a prison.
It has been 47 years since Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs, yet the United States has not healed from these wounds. The current opioid epidemic is yet another symptom of this misunderstanding, and Donald Trump is another president devastatingly ill-prepared to fight it. In addition to the malappointment of Weyeneth, this fumbling of policy can also be seen in the policies of Attorney General Jeff Session, who is intent on prosecuting every drug user. This time around, Trump has weaved the criminal group MS-13 into his fearmongering, and has used their existence in Latin America as justification for the ramped-up war. Much like Nixon did with the Vietnam war, Trump is using this international criminal gang as a poster enemy for the administration’s campaign against immigration. Instead of vagabond drug users within our inner cities, President Trump has carefully crafted a message that paints innocent immigrants as the canary in the coal mine for drugs entering into the United States. This time, he is attacking the suppliers instead of the users. By ramping up rhetoric against such a large international gang, Trump is following Nixon and Reagan in finding an enemy to blame and attack and using it to serve a larger political function. Trump aligns most consistently with the far right on immigration, where his proposals for a border wall and mass deportations have found deep support. Instead of cracking down on actual violent crime, he is using MS-13 to instigate fear against immigrants. President Trump has been able to attack all immigrants with this rhetoric by equating curbing illegal immigration with preventing the importing of drugs. Trump made it clear that Mexican immigrants are his enemy, and by blindly tying all immigrants to the gang MS-13, he is able to sustain his most abusive attack.
President Trump’s weaponization of drug policy should come as no surprise. This is the United States after all, the very country that has more drug-related deaths than any other country in the world. The country with the highest drug overdoses per capita, and the highest number of drug related suicides. The country with the highest use of prescription opioids per capita, and the highest rate of deaths from opioids as well. Our current reality is the manifestation of years of neglect and these statistics codify a state that is failing to act on such a pervasive problem in a way that actually solves it. Millions of americans have been abandoned by our government over the last forty years and their deaths are the tragic result of a state unwilling to act in the interest of those most vulnerable.
Recently, researchers from three different U.S. universities found that liberal recreational marijuana laws actually reduced dependence on opioid use within those areas. Often working as a substitute for treating pain, nausea, or acheness, marijuana could be prescribed in higher levels to those looking for relief. Similarly, the federal government could reimagine prescription guidelines and reinforce provided subsidies for rehabilitation facilities to cut down on the number of yearly deaths from opioid overdose. While curbing deaths, the federal government could also make treatment options more widely available and facilitate discussion about opioid abuse that could create an environment where people feel safe to seek help. Whereas Obama strengthened the ability for people to get treatment for drug abuse, Trump has moved to cut it and subsidize tax cuts with that money instead. Instead of embracing substantive policy to help curb the demand for drugs in the United States, Trump has simply grouped immigrants into the same group as drug smugglers to bolster his political attacks. President Trump could make people’s lives easier but has chosen not to, and has rendered the American safety net so thin that is is impossible to think that drug deaths will decline.
Since the 1970s, drug policy in the United States has been a covert way of stripping away the rights of ordinary Americans in the name of peace and security. It has never been about preventing drug use and instead has been used as a banner for invasions of privacy and breaches of the Fourth and Fifth Amendment in the name of racist abuses of power. Not only has this war on drugs been a facade, it has also caused some of the deepest and most painful problems in American society. Instead of implementing comprehensive and thoughtful policies, the United States has uprooted entire generations of black youth, decimated the possible upward progress of millions of families, and blamed drug users for their weaknesses instead of focusing on recovery. Trump is preparing to continue the ineffective policies of administrations past, and is using Attorney General Jeff Sessions as a political tool to enforce a xenophobic and malicious agenda on millions of Americans.