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GOP Presidential Contenders Cling to Drug War Policies Fueling Overdose Crisis

Overdoses spike when police get involved, but the “war on drugs” remains potent political theater on the right.

Republican presidential candidates (from left) Vivek Ramaswamy, Ron Desantis, Tim Scott, and Mike Pence arrive for the start of the second GOP debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, on September 27, 2023.

Echoing what advocates have said for years, a groundbreaking new study has found that the number of drug overdoses in an urban area of Indiana doubled after police raids took fentanyl and other drugs off the street. Trusted suppliers were busted by police, and users who relied on them were forced to either find new sources and take greater risks with drugs of unknown potency or face the painful sickness of withdrawal. People arrested and jailed for selling fentanyl are often drug users themselves, and incarceration vastly increases their risk of overdose both behind bars and upon release.

The study adds to a growing pile of evidence that drug policing is complicating the overdose crisis, if not compounding record rates of drug-related death. Writing in Harvard Public Health, authors Grant Davis and Brandon del Pozo declared that “police drug busts don’t work.”

“By now, it’s clear that we’ve lost the war: We can’t arrest our way out of an overdose crisis,” write Davis and del Pozo, who teach public health at Rutgers University and Brown University, respectively. “What’s more, there’s growing evidence that drug busts may actually increase overdoses. The war on drugs is costing lives.”

Like many aspects of drug policy, this conclusion may seem counterintuitive, but the evidence paints a clearer picture. Overdose fatalities have skyrocketed despite lavish law enforcement efforts at all levels of government to attack the supply of drugs and opioid painkillers in particular, but don’t expect to hear this from politicians in either party. The fear that fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, provokes in the minds of voters is just too politically valuable.

The debate on September 27, between the GOP presidential contenders (minus former President Donald Trump, the frontrunner who has so far refused to debate his rivals) is case and point. Fox News moderators asked Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina the first question, pointing out that President Joe Biden had just joined striking autoworkers at the picket line in Detroit, and asking Scott how he would approach labor unions as president. Unwilling to praise organized labor, Scott quickly changed the subject and delivered the first fentanyl-related disinformation of the night, blaming Biden for a southern border that “is unsafe, wide open and insecure, leading to the deaths of 70,000 Americans in the last 12 months because of fentanyl.”

While Scott’s death count is roughly correct — about 70,000 people are estimated to have died of fentanyl poisoning over a 12-month period out of a record 111,000 total overdose deaths — fact checkers had already thoroughly debunked claims that Biden’s border policies are contributing to the overdose crisis. The vast majority of fentanyl enters the country at legal ports of entry, often smuggled by U.S. citizens, and billions of dollars are spent on stopping the flow. Border Patrol, federal drug agents and the White House regularly boast about seizing huge amounts of fentanyl at the border with Mexico. Yet the number of fatal overdoses recorded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surpassed 100,000 annually in 2022 and continues to rise.

The number of fatal overdoses soared to new heights under Trump, when border restrictions and an ongoing crackdown on prescription painkillers increased demand for fentanyl, but the former president’s rivals are not bringing up this inconvenient fact. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was once again the loudest Trump critic on stage, but he notably chaired the former president’s Commission on Opioids as the overdose death count began steadily climbing in 2017.

For Republicans, the overdose crisis is an opportunity to posture as tough on crime, to blow racist dog whistles about migrants and to attack Biden over border policy. They play to fear and anxiety amplified by a right-wing media that wrongly conflates migration with drug trafficking and constantly broadcasts images of asylum seekers arriving at the border to rile up its audience. The result is a deluge of scaremongering and misinformation.

As Paul Waldman laments at the Washington Post, Democrats and Republicans support some of the same approaches to the overdose crisis, but it’s becoming a campaign issue in the most “demagogic and inane way possible.” At this point, policy makers in both parties understand that addiction is a medical condition and can be effectively treated when people have access to housing, health care, harm reduction services, and other supports. Police raids and drug war policies provide none of this, but they can temporarily disrupt the supply of drugs, an act which immediately destabilizes the users who relied on that supply. Drug interdiction also incentivizes traffickers to smuggle more potent drugs in smaller packages, which is one reason why powerful synthetics such as fentanyl replaced heroin and prescription painkillers in the first place.

These are difficult realities to explain plainly to voters, and politicians know the overdose crisis is an emotional issue. Families are grieving the loss of loved ones. The statistics are terrifying. So, Republicans flatten an extremely complex problem into raw propaganda. They attack Biden and conflate addiction with immigration, offering blunt, one-size-fits-all fixes that appeal to voters’ anxieties but will not work. Trump pledges to put drug dealers to death. Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis threaten military strikes against drug targets in Mexico, a policy that could cause an international conflagration and ignite cycles of extreme violence. Fifty years of failed drug war policies have left us with mass incarceration and the overdose crisis, but GOP presidential hopefuls are only pledging to escalate the same disastrous approach.

They are far from alone. A wave of harsh new laws aimed at handing down hefty prison sentences to people involved with fentanyl are sweeping the country, fueled by fear, stigma and opportunistic politicians in both parties. For example, “drug homicide” laws in several states allow prosecutors to charge anyone who provides fentanyl that leads to an overdose death with murder, even if they were simply sharing drugs with their friends. Such laws can prevent people from calling 911 for help in the event of an accidental overdose, for fear of spending the rest of their lives in prison.

Jurisdictions that previously decriminalized drug possession, in part due to their realization that putting people who are dependent on opioids in jail can be fatal, are now moving to recriminalize drug users as urbanites complain about houseless people who have little choice but to get high on the street. Providing affordable housing and wraparound services for people living with mental illness and addiction is hard, expensive work that takes years, so even liberal cities such as Seattle are turning to police instead.

Advocates for reform and harm reduction warn that policies like these will only make the crisis more deadly. Earlier this month, members of more than 400 families who lost a loved one to overdose signed an open letter urging lawmakers at all levels of government to reject the crackdown and decriminalize drug possession, increase access to harm reduction services, and invest in health care and addiction treatment instead of policing and prisons.

“Opportunistic politicians supported by law enforcement are using the overdose crisis and parents’ grief to pass harsh drug laws that will only continue to fill our morgues and prisons,” states the open letter. “Punitive laws will not bring our loved ones back, but they will subject other parents’ children to more suffering and deny them the support that can keep them alive.”

Denise Cullen, cofounder of Broken No More, one of the groups behind the letter, lost her son Jeff to an overdose. As Cullen tells it, Jeff’s story is revealing:

I lost my son, my only child, Jeff, to an overdose. But he didn’t have to die. There were two people with Jeff that day, one of whom had sold him the heroin he used. They could have called for help but, instead, they pulled him from the SUV and left him on a lawn. And while people will say that they were monsters, they weren’t. The monster was fear. Fear of the police. Fear of arrest. Fear of spending 20 years to life in prison. It was fear that killed my son. Criminalization and punitive drug laws have resulted in nothing but more imprisonment, more deaths, and more devastated families. We must, instead, invest in health-based solutions that will save the lives of the ones we love. Laws that charge people with murder for a drug-related death may sound like a good idea. Until that is, it’s your child that dies on a lawn.

Fear killed Jeff as well as countless others who have died alone while hiding from police, parole officers and prosecutors. Fear is also what Republicans are trafficking when they conflate fentanyl with human migration — the same racist fear that Trump summoned in 2016 to propel himself into the White House.

Trump’s rivals clearly took note, and besides, what else can they say about the overdose crisis? While some in the GOP have supported much-needed reforms that remove barriers to addiction treatment, Republicans largely oppose the massive investments in health care, education and the social safety net that are necessary to stem the tide of death. Instead, they terrify voters with misinformation and promise retribution in the form of state violence. It’s a strategy for securing a presidential nomination, not for saving lives.

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