Call it his “Duterte moment.”
Donald Trump is rolled out his latest plan to address the opioid crisis at a March 19 speech in New Hampshire, where opioid addiction has hit particularly hard. One feature is getting particular attention: A proposal to apply the death penalty to some (as yet unspecified) drug crimes.
This shocking proposal rips a page out of the playbook of Philippines strongman Rodrigo Duterte.
Since taking office as president in June 2016, Duterte has unleashed a brutal crackdown. Thousands of drug users have been jailed with harsh sentences. Those who turned themselves in to authorities likely sought to avoid a worse fate: the now-routine extrajudicial assassinations carried out by Philippines police and other forces.
According to Human Rights Watch, some 12,000 people have been killed as a consequence of the drug war since Duterte took office. In August, Duterte said that police should shoot human rights advocates “if they are obstructing justice.”
No wonder Trump likes him. The president reportedly praised Duterte for his “unbelievable job on the drug problem” in an April phone call.
Not only would Trump face some problems implementing a Duterte-style crackdown, but you can bet, for example, that if the death penalty were expanded to cover drug-related offenses, it wouldn’t be applied to America’s chief opioid pushers: the heads of the big pharmaceutical companies.
Recent lawsuits filed by several states, counties and cities make the case that various companies, including Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals and Johnson & Johnson, have spent millions to market opioids to consumers, while both downplaying the risks and overstating their benefits.
Drug executives, of course, claim there’s nothing wrong with their products — and it’s true that millions of people with chronic pain find relief when such drugs are prescribed and managed appropriately.
But there’s plenty of evidence that drug companies marketed prescription opioids in a way that directly fueled the current crisis.
A 2016 Los Angeles Times report, for example, noted that Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, was aware that the drug wore off for many people hours earlier than the company claimed, yet it continued to market it as lasting for 12 hours per dose. This led to patients needlessly suffering withdrawal, leading to addiction in some.
Due to Purdue’s heavy marketing campaign, which marked a clear shift in the way opioids were prescribed in the US, OxyContin became America’s best-selling painkiller.
That added up to at least $31 billion in profits from OxyContin for Purdue Pharma and the billionaire Sackler family that owns it — as well as 200,000 deaths from overdoses related to OxyContin and other prescription opioids since 1999 and a massive spike in the use of heroin and other street-level opioids as patients turned to other drugs when they could no longer get prescriptions.
Trump’s March 19 speech in New Hampshire is only the latest photo op about the opioid epidemic, which he has called a national public health emergency twice before.
The White House has so far put forward little in terms of concrete proposals or resources for communities struggling with a crisis that now claims more lives breast cancer. Congress has allocated $6 billion for the crisis — but that’s a pitiful amount, especially when compared to the $582 billion US military budget in 2017.
Overall, the Trump plan appears to be a combination of underfunded half-measures for treatment, alongside proposals that will really only expand America’s already expansive drug war and prison system.
On the “theoretically positive” side, the Trump plan reportedly includes a proposal to expand access for Medicaid enrollees to in-patient treatment by repealing a federal law that barred residential addiction treatment. There’s also a push to expand the availability of naloxone — the primary emergency drug used to treat overdoses.
But such proposals won’t amount to anything without the money to make them happen. As Politico reported: “[T] he plan could cost billions of dollars more than Trump budgeted — and likely far more than any funding package that Congress would approve — raising questions about how much of it can actually be put into practice.”
Moreover, the “theoretically positive” proposals are far outweighed by a slew of bad ones.
One would require the Medicare and Medicaid systems to be more selective about the kinds of opioid prescriptions they will fund. But this could open the door to patients with chronic and debilitating pain being summarily cut off.
The most troubling aspects of the plan would ramp up the time-tested and failed strategies of prosecution and punishment — like Trump’s push death for the penalty.
At least one in five people of the 2.3 million imprisoned in various federal, state and local detention facilities in 2017 was there for a drug offense, according to the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI). This includes nearly half of all those incarcerated at the federal level.
Trump’s plan would make all this worse with proposals to, for example, make it easier to apply mandatory-minimum sentencing for “traffickers” who “knowingly distribute illegal opioids that can be lethal.”
That strategy is backed by Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions. A strict proponent of drug policing and criminalization, Sessions’ callous attitude was summed up at a February meeting at the US Attorney’s Office in Tampa, Florida, where he said that instead of opioid prescriptions, “People need to take some aspirin sometimes and tough it out.”
At the state level, this latest phase of the drug war is causing an increased militarization of law enforcement.
In West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice activated the National Guard to provide local police with support — using National Guard helicopters for surveillance during drug busts, for example.
This will do nothing to stem the causes of the opioid crisis. But it’s a stark illustration of the way resources are allocated by politicians who claim they can’t find the money to, for example, provide public school teachers with a decent wage or fund the agency that manages state workers’ health care.
Meanwhile, according to a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, deaths related to drugs increased by more than 600 percent across the US between 1980 and 2014. As CNN reported, “Boone County, West Virginia was the county with the largest increase, 8,369.7 percent, in deaths due to drug overdose.”
This isn’t the result of people recklessly seeking drugs instead of “an aspirin,” as Jeff Sessions snidely suggests. The opioid epidemic is the result of a deep and pervasive social crisis — a one-sided class war that has caused the destruction of formerly stable working-class communities, especially in the Rust Belt states.
Nor is this social crisis unique to white working-class communities. In Black urban areas, which have always suffered disproportionate poverty, unemployment and drug addiction, opioid deaths are surging — though little attention is being paid to it in the media. According to a recent NPR report, opioid overdose deaths of Black men between the ages of 40 and 69 in Washington, DC, have increased 245 percent from 2014 to 2017.
Nationally, the rate of drug deaths is rising the fastest among African Americans: For Blacks in urban counties, deaths from drugs rose by 41 percent in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Such communities will be the first to suffer from increased policing and incarceration under Trump’s plan — and the last to get funding or resources.
No matter how Trump or Washington tries to spin it, their “plan” to tackle America’s opioid addiction will only bring more pain to communities that are already suffering — while letting the real criminals off the hook.