Coercing drug users to get sterilized, rounding them up into labor camps, and executing dealers are just some of the more extreme policy ideas being floated by politicians to address the U.S.’ overdose crisis.
But experts say the proposed solutions violate human rights and won’t solve the problem.
During a recent meeting with Mineral County residents, West Virginia state Sen. Randy Smith, a Republican, said he wants to draft a bill that would give people convicted of drug crimes the option to sterilize themselves in order to receive shortened prison sentences.
“If you get caught with drugs—and it’s all voluntary, you don’t have to—but if you want to lessen your prison sentence, if you’re a man, you can get a vasectomy so you can’t produce anymore,” Smith said, according to the Cumberland Times-News.
“If you’re a woman, then you get your tubes tied, so you don’t bring any more drug babies into the system. Now, you don’t have to. If you don’t you’re going to jail for a very long time. If you volunteer for the program, then you get a lesser sentence.”
“If you’re a woman, then you get your tubes tied, so you don’t bring any more drug babies into the system.”
More than 107,000 Americans died of a fatal overdose in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with fentanyl and other synthetic opioids claiming the lives of over 70,000 people. West Virginia has the highest fatal drug overdose rate in the U.S. with 81.4 deaths per 100,000 people.
Smith’s suggestion is a form of eugenics—a practice of controlling the human population by reproducing “desirable” traits and breeding out those considered undesirable, often based on racist and prejudiced assumptions. As VICE News previously reported, the non-profit Project Prevention gives drug users money to get sterilized. Government-funded sterilization programs have also taken aim at people with mental illness, poor people, incarcerated people, and people of color.
“This is part of a broader trend for some people to say that certain people aren't worthy of becoming parents and that they could pass on— genetically or environmentally—certain traits that are undesirable,” said Sheila Vakharia, deputy director of research and academic engagement at the Drug Policy Alliance.
Vakharia said a eugenics-based solution writes off people with addictions as having problems that they can never overcome. It also ignores the fact that people who use drugs can be good parents, she added.
However, she thinks Smith’s suggestion is mostly “political theater.”
“A lot of politicians are grasping at straws and want to look like they're doing something, but also want to look like they're proposing new solutions,” she said.
Hostility has also been ramping up toward drug dealers. Former President Donald Trump, for example, said he wants the death penalty for everyone caught selling drugs—a position shared by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. At a Nov. 7 rally, Trump also expressed admiration for the idea of having a “quick trial” for drug sellers, that he dubiously claimed came from China.
“If they’re guilty, they are executed,” he said. “The bullet is sent to their families… It’s pretty tough stuff. There’s no games. So they have no drug problem whatsoever.”
“If they’re guilty, they are executed. The bullet is sent to their families.”
While there has been an increase in states passing drug-induced homicide laws, through which dealers are charged with murder if they sell drugs to someone who dies, there’s no evidence that those prosecutions make a dent in the overdose crisis.
In fact, media coverage about such cases have led to spikes in overdoses because people get scared to call the authorities if someone needs help, according to a 2021 report from the Health in Justice Action Lab at Northeastern University.
Vakharia said this is an example of “individualizing the problem,” rather than addressing systemic issues.
“Many people's analysis is that we’ve got to blame individual dealers, drug transporters, and distributors because that's what the problem is, rather than actually seeing that the reason why the drug supply is so unpredictable is because of broader social, structural, and policy factors, namely prohibition, which by its definition leads to an unregulated and adulterated drug supply,” she said.
Hiawatha Collins, community and capacity building manager at National Harm Reduction Coalition, said this rhetoric ignores the fact that a lot of drug dealers are selling drugs to manage their own addictions.
“Nobody's really making a whole lot of money and getting rich doing that,” said Collins, a former marine who has used heroin in the past.
“If people had jobs, if people had education, if people had good health care, if people were able to pay their rent If he was able to pay their rent and keep food on the table—nobody wants to sell drugs.”
As the pandemic has exacerbated societal inequities, large homeless encampments have become another political flashpoint in the War on Drugs. Some policymakers have even suggested forcibly removing them as a solution—or started the process.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams recently launched an initiative that directs city employees, including the police, to hospitalize mentally ill people who are in public against their will, “even when there is no recent dangerous act,” per state guidelines. In Spring, the mayor also directed the city to start clearing homeless encampments, and some people who refused to leave were arrested.
Many of the encampments are most visible on the West Coast. California had cleared more than 1,250 homeless encampments between September 2021 and August 2022, according to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office. In a recent op-ed in the California Globe, Edward Ring, co-founder of the conservative think tank California Policy Center, wrote that people addicted to drugs “could be removed to regional camps set up in inexpensive parts of California’s urban counties.”
“To help earn their keep, they could participate in conservation projects and other character building work, and recover their sobriety, their dignity, and eventually their freedom. The truly mentally ill would have to be placed, involuntarily, in psychiatric hospitals,” Ring said, which drew comparisons to concentration camps on Twitter.
Vakharia said sending people to far-off locations will likely make it harder for those who are overdosing to get medical attention. The appeal of these proposals is that people won’t have to come face to face with visible poverty, she said.
“A lot of this is because of out of sight, out of mind. Some people just don't understand how some people struggled and we don't want to see it.”
Leo Beletsky, a Northeastern University professor of law and health sciences who leads the Health in Justice Action Lab, said a lot of these “fringe ideas” have been previously discredited.
“First of all, they're ineffective. Second of all, there are human rights abuses and ethical issues and moral problems with these kinds of approaches.”
But he said they’re also an indictment of mainstream political leaders who have failed to get a grip on the overdose crisis by implementing more widespread treatment and harm reduction measures, including access to methadone and safe consumption sites.
He pointed to President Joe Biden’s administration backtracking on providing funding for crack pipes as one example. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, recently rejected the idea of using any of the $2 billion the state has received in opioid settlement money from pharmaceutical companies to fund safe injection sites after widespread condemnation from the right.
In Philadelphia, harm reductionists have been trying for years to open a safe injection site but they were sued by former U.S. Attorney William McSwain because the sites are federally illegal. The case has since escalated, with the Department of Justice asking for more time to come to a “possible amicable resolution to continue” earlier this month.
“The rhetoric goes, ‘Well, what we're doing isn't working like, the scientific and quote unquote humane approach, isn't working. We need something else,’” Beletsky said. “But we never tried it, really.”
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