Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the opioid epidemic a "plague" that "not only brings death, but a whole parade of horribles," during a speech Thursday. He also said that in order to defeat this plague, the US needs to invest in better law enforcement to combat the drug trade.
"Criminal enforcement is crucial to stopping the violent transnational cartels that smuggle drugs across our borders, and the thugs and gangs who bring this poison into our communities," Sessions said, according to an official transcript of the speech he delivered to Drug Enforcement Administration workers in West Virginia Thursday.
President Donald Trump's administration, like many GOP administrations before, has drawn criticism for focusing too much on law enforcement as a solution to the opioid epidemic, while ignoring other important aspects such as prevention and addiction treatment. Some experts are concerned we will slip back into a 80s and 90s war-on-drugs era mentality—criminalizing drug addicts rather than treating them–which was proven to be ineffective at ending addiction struggles.
But law enforcement has an undeniable role to play, so long as it's focused on stopping drug traffic, not criminalizing addicts. The opioid epidemic kills 91 Americans every day, according to the Centers of Disease Control. It was a major issue during candidate Donald Trump's campaign, and his base includes populations most impacted by this scourge, as evidenced in the election, when Trump performed best in the counties hardest hit by the opioid epidemic.
Trump's administration has taken steps to beef up law enforcement to rein in the opioid epidemic, as Sessions highlighted in his speech. Trump's budget wishlist, which he released in March, called for an increased spending of $175 million in the Department of Justice's budget to target drug traffickers. Sessions said he has directed the DOJ to focus on drug traffickers, and border security.
"I have directed our federal prosecutors to make criminal immigration enforcement a priority, and to appoint a Border Security Coordinator in each of their offices," Session said. " We are going after the transnational cartels and gangs like Sinaloa and MS-13 that enrich themselves by smuggling their poison and members across our porous southern border."
Sessions even called out a well-worn phrase, that "we can't arrest our way out of this problem," but said no one is denying that prevention and treatment will also play a role. Sam Quinones, a journalist who wrote a book on the opioid epidemic in America— Dreamland—told me the reality is that law enforcement has to play an equal, if not larger, role than prevention and treatment.
"Treatment has almost no chance of succeeding if every addict gets out and goes back to a community awash in dope," Quinones said. "That all has to do with supply of illegal drugs on the street, and that to me is a law enforcement job."
Quinones said Sessions focusing on the law enforcement angle makes sense, particularly given his audience, and said we can't deny the role that criminal justice has to play. The question is whether the Trump administration will embrace all of the solutions needed to fight the opioid crisis, or repeat history's mistakes and hope cracking down on criminals will be enough.
Quinones stressed that none of these strategies—law enforcement, treatment, and prevention—will be effective independently, and rely on the other efforts if we want to successfully curb the surging number of overdose deaths in the US. So far, the Trump administration hasn't dedicated much time or effort to the other prongs, focusing almost solely on law enforcement: a strategy that will fail to make a difference in a vacuum.
In fact, Trump's proposed budget would cut the funding for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the agency leading the response to the opioid epidemic, by 95 percent. And the American Health Care Act, the Republican bill to repeal and replace Obamacare that passed the House last week, would make it more difficult for drug users to seek treatment, by both limiting protections for pre-existing conditions like addiction, and by eliminating coverage for millions of Americans.
"This is the thing we've been doing for too long: saying there's only one solution," Quinones said. "For a long time, that solution was jail and really that's nonsensical. It's this unilateral approach that bothers me most of all."
Subscribe to Science Solved It , Motherboard's new show about the greatest mysteries that were solved by science.